More social work resources needed in child protection

Almost 1,000 high priority cases not yet assigned social workers at end of 2015, figures show

More social workers and more resources for social workers are needed to deal with child protection, the Irish Association of Social Workers (IASW) has said.

Elsewhere, children's charity Barnardos has warned that cases of severe neglect and abuse will continue unless there is sufficient investment and resources in prevention and early intervention work with parents and families.

Spokesman for the IASW, Dónal O'Malley, said there needs to be efforts to retain social workers in the profession. "There is a high turnover of social workers, particularly in urban areas, they are lasting two or three years, they are getting out or burning out," he said.

There were now not enough senior social workers to help mentor younger ones, he said. He highlighted an “ever increasing number of referrals to child protection services”, and said systems needed to be re-examined.


His comments come following the jailing, for four and a half years, of a 39-year-old mother for child cruelty and neglect of seven of her children.

Kn own to social services

Sentencing the woman, Judge Karen O'Connor raised concerns that the children, who had been known to social services since 2006 but who were not taken into care until 2011, had remained under the radar of the authorities for so long. In 2006 two of the girls were placed in emergency care for a month.

The most recently available figures from Tusla, the Child and Family Agency, show that, of 26,655 open cases at the end of 2015, a quarter had not yet been allocated a social worker and almost 1,000 of these had been categorised high priority.

Asked how delays in taking children into care might occur, Mr O’Malley said a social worker might initially be alerted to a concern about a child and when the case is investigated, it appears to be a once-off.

Parents can explain issues away, he said, unless you can come forward with evidence.

He said social workers try to offer support to families and “embed” themselves with a family to gradually improve things for everyone. While obvious physical abuse can be prioritised, other cases come along and some get pushed to one side.

“There is a constant juggling act that goes on in Tusla to try to get the most needy cases prioritised,” he said.

Difficult to keep track

Social workers can also find it difficult to keep track of families that move repeatedly from one area to another.

A senior social worker who did not wish to be named said factors that could lead to children not being taken into care rapidly enough include how they are categorised at the time of first referral.

A child might first come to attention through a school because of poor attendance, and the case would not be given the same priority as a sexual abuse allegation and may not spark immediate action.

“If you had time to follow up, you might learn more information about the child’s situation, but because of limited resources, high case loads and high referrals, people have to prioritise and things can be put on the back burner,” he said.

Barnardos chief executive Fergus Finlay said key recommendations issued following other high-profile cases of child neglect and abuse consistently highlighted the need to invest properly in appropriate supports and services for parents. But the State still had not invested sufficiently and children remained at risk.

“We know neglect is the main reason for referral into Tusla, yet Tusla’s underfunding has meant a dearth of front line personnel to offer appropriate support and instead it focuses mainly on crisis cases,” he said.

“Even the additional funding to Tusla given in Budget 2016 is insufficient to shift its focus into a more preventative direction.”

He said the impact of neglect on children is severe and often irreparable.

“Failure to invest in prevention and early intervention is a failure to protect vulnerable children. As a society, it is not an area we should scrimp on.”

Fiona Gartland

Fiona Gartland

Fiona Gartland is a crime writer and former Irish Times journalist