Plan for emergency social workers

Plans are being put in place for the first nationwide out-of-hours social work service —10 years after the outcry sparked by the deaths of Sharon Grace and her young daughters.

The service will be co- ordinated through a national night-time and weekend call centre which will link gardaí and hospital staff to on-call social workers in every county.

Gardaí, hospital staff, and GPs will also have access to a Child Protection Notification System holding the names of children who are already the subject of Child Protection Plans.

However, progress in setting up the service is contingent on a number of factors, including adequate staffing at a time when social workers complain that they are struggling with impossible workloads.

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The Department of Children and Youth Affairs said the service would be called the Emergency Out of Hours Service (EHOS).

“This initiative has been the subject of extensive discussions with the relevant trade union and these discussions are ongoing,” said a department source.

Tusla, the Child and Family Agency, which will oversee the EHOS, advertised an unspecified number of whole-time, part-time, and contract positions for social workers in the past week. It said: “Detailed negotiations with the relevant union are close to being concluded.”

The lack of out-of-hours social work services outside of the greater Dublin area was highlighted tragically ten years ago this month in Co Wexford when a distressed Sharon Grace, 28, went to her local hospital on a Saturday evening with her daughters, Mikahla, four, and Abby, three, and asked to see a social worker.

She was told they only worked 9am to 5pm, Monday to Friday, so she left and went to nearby Katts Strand on the Slaney River where she walked into the water, drowning all three of them.

After their deaths, a working group was set up to examine the case for a 24-hour social work service and it concluded in 2007 that it should be provided but the then Department of Health and Children ruled it out.

Eventually, two pilot projects were set up in 2011 in Cork and Donegal and the EHOS is based on those.

However, already the service is likely to fall short of what was hoped for following the Katts Strand tragedy. Its focus will be on children in danger and Tusla was unable to say how the provision of supports would change, if at all, in a case where a parent or other vulnerable adult needed help.

In the last few weeks, the chairman of an inquest jury in Co Wexford was moved to speak out about the community’s dismay at the lack of out-of-hours services after a local woman who took her life left a letter detailing how she “reached out” for help at night but was “dismissed and ignored”.

The Impact trade union which represents most social workers complained recently that more than 200 social work positions were unfilled, backlogs were growing and social workers were under increasing pressure.

However, Impact assistant general secretary Christina Carney said she was hopeful of reaching agreement on the EHOS.

“We are in discussion with Tusla and we are talking about the provision of the new service,” said Ms Carney. “We have always been committed to an out-of-hours service and we hope that we can conclude an agreement.”

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