Children in acute need of social workers as retention levels in sector drop

Graduates in ‘a high-risk environment’ of social work choosing to leave sector

Tusla  hired 142 social workers in 2018 but 158 staff members retired or moved into a different job the same year. Photograph: Alan Betson

Tusla hired 142 social workers in 2018 but 158 staff members retired or moved into a different job the same year. Photograph: Alan Betson


Children in care in Carlow, Kilkenny, Laois, Offaly and parts of south central Dublin are in acute need of social workers, the Irish Foster Care Association (IFCA) has warned.

Speaking at a Joint Oireachtas Committee on Children and Youth Affairs, Catherine Bond, IFCA chief executive highlighted an “acute shortfall” in social workers in many parts of the country, with recent graduates opting to leave the profession because of the pressurised demands of the job.

Without a social worker, children in care cannot build a meaningful relationship with the person charged as their “corporate parent”, warned Ms Bond. “New social workers are coming in but then moving on quickly. It’s critical for a child in care to develop an open and trusting relationship with their social workers.”

Foster carers are left feeling “volatile and vulnerable” when dealing with a child with complex needs without the support of a social worker. They also cannot provide consent for a child to go on school tours, attend sleep-overs and travel with their foster family.

There are more than 6,000 children in State care, with 5,573 living in foster homes and more than 4,523 foster families, according to data from last September. Children in care are required to have a dedicated social worker while the foster carer receives support from a link social worker.

Ms Bond noted that while Tusla had taken the steps to hire 142 social workers in 2018, 158 staff members retired or moved into a different job the same year. She recommended that the agency carry out exit interviews with departing staff to analyse people’s decision to leave the sector.

Foster carers should also be given enhanced rights which would allow them to give consent for school trips and family holidays when the child is in a long-term, stable placement rather than contacting the social worker and adding to their case-load, she said.

Staff mentor

She added that recent graduates of social work should be given a staff mentor for the first 12 months of their new role while bursaries should be made available by Tusla to attract social care workers to study social work at third level.

Áine McGuirk, chair of the Irish Association of Social Workers, agreed that changes were needed in recruitment and called for an increase in the number of college places offering social work courses.

However, the retention of social workers who practice their skills in “a high-risk environment where their efforts are rarely recognised or acknowledged” is the real problem, she said.

While social workers welcome greater regulation and public scrutiny of child protection, these additional measures often lead to negative feedback, increased workload on already pressurised staff and lower morale, she said.

Recent graduates must deal with complex child welfare and protection cases and make life changing decisions for children without having the time to develop their skills and follow the guidance of more experienced colleagues. “Without this they are more likely to make mistakes, become stressed and burnt out and take a career break or leave as quickly as they can.”

“There’s evidence that shows if you can keep people for about five years in the field they’ll settle into it. It’s about holding on to the young professionals in those first years.”

She called for new graduates to begin with “manageable caseloads and effective supervision” for a minimum of six months and an effective induction programme so social workers can “feel confident about their role”.