The Irish Times – Monday, January 17, 2011
Child protection is in crisis, say social workers
SOCIAL WORKERS in parts of Dublin say they are being forced to ignore hundreds of potentially serious child protection concerns due to heavy workloads and under-staffing.
They have also warned that an increase in referrals means they are under growing pressure to close cases which have not always received a social work response.
Frontline staff said they feel compelled to highlight the “crisis” in the sector because it is “only a matter of time before a vulnerable child is exposed to serious abuse or neglect”.
The Health Service Executive (HSE) recently announced that 60 new social workers will be appointed this year, in addition to 200 posts last year.
Furthermore, it says the appointment of a senior executive for child and family services will accelerate change in this area.
However, social workers who spoke to The Irish Times say the service in parts of the capital is under unprecedented strain.
In particular, they say they have been forced to raise the threshold for the kind of neglect or welfare concerns which previously would have merited a direct response from social workers.
This means social workers are only able to respond quickly to the most urgent “emergency” cases.
Among the types of case they say are now being screened out by social workers are domestic violence, teenage pregnancies, truancy and teenagers with drug problems.
Typically, these concerns are placed on waiting lists and often only receive a social work response if they escalate into a more serious issue.
“This is a real ethical dilemma. In essence, we’re being forced to screen out potentially very serious cases.
“In the case of domestic violence, if the child hasn’t been directly affected then we don’t follow it up. The thresholds have been raised,” said one social worker, speaking on condition of anonymity.
They did, however, point to progress in foster care and say increases in resources are helping to improve services in this area.
Negative publicity over failures in this sphere of operations appeared to have contributed to action on the ground, one employee said.
“We hope that by bringing the current situation in relation to the wider child protection and family support services into the public domain, the HSE will be forced to fully resource and prioritise the child protection services,” the social worker said.
Another social worker said employees are under pressure to close cases as soon as possible, as there are so many other cases awaiting allocation.
“We feel we have to rush everything all the time, which means it’s very easy to make a mistake,” the employee said.
“I feel it’s only a matter of time before a child is exposed to further abuse or neglect due to the social work department’s inability to respond as swiftly as the case requires.
“We feel isolated and vulnerable. Many of us fear that if something goes wrong, we’ll be left on our own.”
Social workers say they have continually voiced concerns to management over gaps in child protection services, but insist there has been little meaningful change on the ground.
They say major gaps in services and understaffing mean that many social workers are saddled with heavy caseloads.
“We are not able to do any of the preventative work that is needed.
“Only when there is a major issue are we able to intervene,” said one employee.
Another social worker said experienced staff were leaving social work teams and less experienced staff were taking their place.
“There is a constant turnover of staff, which leads to inconsistency and a demoralisation of the teams.”