No social workers for 3,000 at-risk children

Around 3,000 children known to be in serious danger of neglect, physical abuse or sexual abuse have no dedicated social worker, it has emerged.

The figure has remained relatively constant since it was first highlighted more than six months ago by children’s rights activist and senator, Jillian van Turnhout.

At yesterday’s meeting of the Joint Oireachtas committee on health and children, Ms van Turnhout asked if there was not some concern that children’s needs were not being addressed. She said the overall number of social workers employed by Tusla, the Child and Family Agency, had increased by just 30 in the past year at a time when the number of referrals rose by 20%.

The senator, who raised the matter with the minister for children, James Reilly, said the situation was totally unacceptable.

Dr Reilly had pointed out that at the end of November, 8,451 children had not been allocated a social worker and 2,844 were classed as “high priority”.

He said the agency had assured him that emergency cases were dealt with immediately.

Emergency cases would be where a child had been abandoned; was in immediate physical danger; or at an immediate risk of abuse.

However, high-priority cases are classed as children at immediate risk of harm, such as being abandoned, beaten or sexually abused.

Ms van Turnhout said the vast majority of such cases (1,774) were waiting more than three months.

She said one of the driving factors in establishing the Child and Family Agency was that the needs of children would be met.

She was concerned that the agency was not being given a chance to succeed. “We know that children are at risk and I don’t think we can stand over this.”

Figures presented by the minister show that at the end of last November there were 28,439 child protection or welfare cases recorded as open and, of these 8,451, or 30%, were not allocated a social worker.

Where a child has not been allocated a social worker the case is reviewed regularly by the principal social worker to see if there had been any change in the child’s situation that would change the case prioritisation.

He said a case load management system that was being rolled out across the country was near completion.

“This is a system for ensuring that social worker caseloads are maintained within manageable levels and the allocation of cases is prioritised on a risk-assessed basis.”

The minister told Sinn Féin TD Sandra McLellan that Tusla was recruiting social workers as vacancies arose and 164 had been recruited and taken up positions since January 2014 and a further 219 were being recruited.

“As in any employment situation, turnover of staff does occur and 112 social workers left the agency during 2014,” he pointed out.

Dr Reilly said a pilot scheme was in place to replace the 92 social workers on maternity leave.

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