Child welfare cases ‘inefficient and adversarial’

The often adversarial nature of cases involving child welfare and protection takes up much social worker time, threatens the principle of securing the best outcomes for children, and costs Tusla more money, according to a new report.

The findings are contained in a report entitled A Social and Economic Analysis of the use of Legal Services (SEALS) in the Child and Family Agency (Tusla), which was conducted by academics from the School of Applied Social Studies and the Department of Economics and Cork University Business School at UCC.

Over a two-year period, researchers, led by Carmel Halton, looked at the economic, legal, and social contexts that guide the use of legal services by social work and educational welfare professionals in Tusla.

The issues of court delays, court schedules, and regular adjournments were widely signalled as placing stringent time and resource demands on Tusla. The report also highlighted the need for direct engagement by Tusla with its personnel who are legal service users, including the need for adequate training.

According to the report: “Engagement with legal services necessitated by the adversarial nature of the system in which child welfare proceedings are carried out has considerable direct financial costs for Tusla.

The lack of acknowledgement by judges and legal personnel of the limitations placed on social workers’ practice by agency and resource limitations triggered significant frustration.

Elsewhere, the report states: “A concern that was echoed by many of the participants in this research was that the principle of securing the best outcomes for children is at risk of becoming obscured in the adversarial legal arena.

“The legal context can result in a tension for Tusla personnel, where legal solutions only offer partial solutions to the highly complex social, economic, and policy issues that are embedded in the cases before the courts.”

In addition, almost 40% of total respondents indicated that social work education programmes had poorly or very poorly prepared them for the legal aspects of the child protection social work role.

Social work managers were also interviewed. The report states: “While acknowledging the increasing complexity of child care cases, court responses, and attendant legal practices and protocols were generally experienced as having become more conflict-ridden with a consequential escalation in the use of legal services by Tusla personnel.

“Participants linked escalating costs in the use of legal services by Tusla staff directly to the more adversarial approach adopted in child welfare proceedings.

The point was also made that increases in expenditure on legal services presents significant budgetary concerns for Tusla. The more money spent on legal services, the less money is remaining to deliver frontline services to children in need.

In terms of Tusla getting ‘value for money’, a participant advised expansion of in-house legal services. It also found that educational welfare officers would like more time to consider cases with solicitors.

‘Inconsistency in attitudes of judges’

Social workers have identified “a lack of consistency” in the attitudes of some judges in childcare proceedings as well as time wasted in courtrooms and a lack of legal training as among their professional concerns.

The findings come from a survey of 374 people who work in the child protection and welfare area, of which 61% were social workers.

The survey, conducted for the Seals study, showed 94% had attended court in their capacity as child protection and welfare social workers and one had attended court 200 times in the previous 12 months.

While 31% described their relationships with the judiciary as largely positive, 62% described them as varied, while 57% portrayed their relationships with solicitors as largely positive.

A lack of consistency was observed in the attitudes and practices of various judges in court,” said the report.

One interviewee said: “My biggest problem is the schedule. You go to court at half ten, the solicitors are going in for the list, and you’re sixth on the list and you’re still called last.”

Another said: “It’s absolutely horrendous. At the moment we turn up at 9am and you might not be heard till 5 in the afternoon, which is a ludicrous waste of everybody’s time.”

Respondents said conflicts of interest were identified as developing between guardian ad litems (GALS) and Tusla social workers, with some claiming GALS undermine the role of social workers despite lacking the same level of experience and training.

While 61% said they had received no induction training, 83% of those who had said it did not include training on the use of legal services.

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