Tusla’s child protection and welfare services now receive a referral every 11 minutes.
The Child and Family Agency received over 53,000 referrals last year, a 27% rise since it was established in 2014.
However, by the end of January, about 4,200 cases had not been allocated a social worker.
The head of the State’s child protection agency, Fred McBride, said Tusla had 9,500 unallocated cases in its first year and since then had achieved a 46% reduction.
“By any industry standard that is a huge improvement. But we are not complacent about that. The target is zero. It has to be zero,” he said.
Mr McBride said all urgent cases get immediate attention and do not go on a waiting list.
Tusla has set out key priorities for the agency over the next three years in a plan launched yesterday.
Mr McBride said they were getting better at deciding the referrals that need further assessment and those that have to be allocated a social worker.
The agency had a “growing” family support service and it might not always be necessary for a case to be allocated to a social worker.
He said the agency had yet to see the effect of mandatory reporting on referrals.
About 900 of the referrals received in January were mandated reports but, he said, it was assumed that they would have resulted in referrals anyway.
“We are not sure whether the existence of mandatory reporting of itself has contributed to the increase in referrals — the trend is already upwards,” he said.
Mr McBride said Tusla would be monitoring the effect of mandatory reporting over time. He said there was “significant evidence” that the number of children in care had stabilised in recent years despite an increase in referrals.
At the moment there are about 6,100 children in state care. Over the past two years, the number decreased by about 150.
“There is evidence that we are protecting a significant number of those children by intervening in a more proportionate and supportive way,” he said.
Mr McBride said 2017 was the most challenging year yet faced by the agency, predominately because of an unprecedented level of external scrutiny, but it had not been “blown off course”.
Recruitment had proved to be particularly difficult for the agency due to the lack of appropriately qualified and skilled social workers.
However, its new corporate plan has identified a range of initiatives designed to assist Tusla with recruitment and retention.
“Unless we support staff to take and manage risk, we will not manage to hang onto them,” said Mr McBride.
He believed they would have a “fighting chance” at dealing with a potential increase in referrals this year if they were able to recruit and retain all the staff they needed.
Minister for Children and Youth Affairs Katherine Zappone said the Government provided more than €40m to Tusla this year.
“I believe the Government is supporting the ambition of Tusla of doing the best for our children, who need help the most,” she said.
Ms Zappone also said agencies like Tusla could expect to continue to be monitored closely.
“As Tusla develops and increases its management team, this accountability requirement may become more manageable, but I think it only fair to indicate that I don’t believe it will diminish much,” she said.
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