Social workers ‘feeling burden of policies’

Some social workers feel inhibited in their work because they are overburdened by policies amid growing caseloads, according to research.

The study, conducted by Cork-based Olivia O’Connell, an implementation officer at Tusla, the Child and Family Agency, shows some social workers are afraid to use too much individual discretion for fear of making the wrong decision amid concerns of “policy overload”.

The study, Exploring the policy to practice gap: Social workers’ experience of embedding child protection policy into their practice, states: “From a social workers’ perspective, all of the findings suggest a ‘policy overload’ which can be an indicator of organisational crisis. This, in turn, has implications for both service providers and service users.”

According to the report, based on interviews with social work professionals, child protection has been moving towards providing services that are “demonstrably effective in implementing evidence-based policy to support best practice”.

“Much less attention, however, has been paid to what is needed to implement these policies in a range of real-world settings, such as front line child protection social work. In Ireland, research on the implementation of child protection policy into practice has usually approached the issue predominantly from a ‘top-down’ perspective.”

The report lists 52 Tusla ancillary policies to Children First Guidelines 2011, which are the cornerstone of child protection policy in Ireland.

Interviewees praise Children First and the accompanying Child Protection and Welfare Practice handbook as key components in their work, but express concern over what the report describes as the “apparent tension between social workers’ professional role identity under CF 2011 and their high workloads”.

According to the report: “Many participants… also mentioned frustrations they experience during joint working as they feel that CF 2011 is not consistently implemented among external professionals. They feel this, in turn, has a negative impact on their practice.”

One interviewee says: “It comes down to having too much paperwork for us to do. Because I actually spend more time at my desk than I do with clients.”

Another said: “[There is too much policy around practice, which] just makes the work more bureaucratic and that doesn’t do anything to change the outcomes of the children that you are working with when you have more paperwork to do at the end of the day.

Another interviewee said: “I think that the nature of our work is that you are constantly hoping that something doesn’t go wrong on your case because by God if it does, you have signed up that you have read Children First but why didn’t you follow section 2.1 or whatever.”

Seven out of eight participants claimed they had limited awareness of myriad new policies and procedures being developed by Tusla and were unsure as to whether all these policies were being implemented within their teams.

According to the report: “Based on these findings, there appears to be an assumption by management both at national and local levels that once a policy is issued, the implementation will happen automatically.”

Among the report’s recommendations is that Tusla explicitly monitors how policies and procedures impact on frontline practice.

Full report: tusla.ie/uploads/content/Exploring_the_ policy_to_practice_gap.pdf


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