Foster care scandal: Social workers fear kids at risk over loss of staff

Tusla, the Child and Family Agency, has defended its record on the retention of social workers following claims that its failure to hold on to experienced staff puts more children at risk of becoming the next ‘Grace’.

The Irish Association of Social Workers (IASW) said it feared there could be more cases like ‘Grace’, the young disabled girl left for years in a foster home known to be abusive, because of the rapid turnover of staff and the relative inexperience of those working on the frontline with children at risk.

IASW chair Donal O’Malley said various reports had highlighted state failures to protect children and they had yet to be adequately acted upon. “Until we actually take those seriously, I think we are going to be waiting on yet another situation where a child or young person is left in a very risky situation,” he said.

But Tusla said in 2014, it lost just 102 of its 1,700 social workers and 20 of those departures were due to personnel reaching retirement age.

Chief operations officer, Fred McBride, said: “This equates to a turnover rate of less than 5%. This compares favourably with neighbouring jurisdictions such as Scotland, which has a turnover rate of close to 10%.”

He added: “Tusla has introduced a number of initiatives to improve service delivery, including a new case management system, maternity cover, and protected caseloads for newly qualified social workers.”

Children’s Minister James Reilly told the Dáil late last week that Tusla now had 1,402 social workers with 239 more due to be recruited.

But he also gave figures that show the supply of social workers still can’t match demand, with 6,411 cases of suspected child neglect or abuse awaiting allocation of a social worker, of whom 1,351 were ‘high priority’.

Mr O’Malley said as well as the children outside the care system who were waiting for a social worker, several hundred of the 6,400 children in care — in foster homes or residential units —were also waiting and this was of “serious concern”.

“Children in care are the most vulnerable children in the State and they deserve the very best of services,” he told RTÉ.

“When you have a child in care, there are regulations in relation to how frequently that child should be visited and social workers work hard in order to try and adhere to those regulations but social workers change positions or in some areas they don’t have the social workers to allocate to cases.

“It takes time for social workers to build up a rapport with a child and issues of abuse in a foster care placement can be very subtle.

“Unfortunately, there is a high proportion of new graduates going into Tusla and Tusla has a difficulty with retaining staff so as staff become more experienced, they want to move on to social worker jobs that maybe don’t carry the same pressure as working in high-pressure environment.”

Mr O’Malley stressed that the vast majority of foster carers were “excellent” but he added: “Unfortunately there are some cases where foster carers are not suitable and where issues arise, and in those kind of cases when social workers have concerns, they can begin a process whereby a foster carer would be deregistered.”

He said that process could take time as due process had to be observed.

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