Helen Buckley was speaking at an event entitled ‘Working with Complexity’ where attendees also heard that the role of domestic violence in childcare cases is too often unseen.
In one Tusla area, it had made 21 special care applications in recent years — each one involved domestic violence — but none of the young people came to the attention of social workers until they were aged 12 or 13.
Stephanie Holt, assistant professor at the School of Social Work in Trinity College Dublin, revealed that the same Tusla area is now spending more of its budget on community-based services that may have more chance of spotting domestic violence issues in the home at an earlier stage.
In her presentation at the day-long conference, organised by the Bessborough Centre in Cork, Dr Buckley said one conclusion from recent reviews was that there was rarely a cause and effect between services and causes of death.
She said that organisational variables influencing cases included availability of staff to fill posts and poor co-ordination, while community and family variables included domestic violence, mental illness, problematic family functioning and resistance to services.
“All this makes for a complex system which is rarely static and where the pathway to outcomes is not always discernible,” she said.
Dr Buckley said recent reviews and inquiries had shown the need for more strategic allocation of resources to support social work and to provide appropriate out-of-home placements, and consistency when it came to applying thresholds for intervention.
She referred to cases deemed to fall under the ‘child welfare’ category when, in the eyes of some of the panel, so much damage had already been done.
She also said there was a need for protocols in respect of public health nurse services, saying “they are beginning to feel very shoved aside by what is happening recently”.
Dr Buckley said data from the Child and Family Agency showed the demands on the system exceed its capacity and that staff retention and recruitment were major challenges.
However, she also said that even in cases where all regulations were followed, challenging situations involving vulnerable children could still occur.
Dr Holt, speaking on the issue of domestic violence, said it was rarely the presenting issue for those affected by it, with anxiety, depression and other issues presented instead — a situation she described as “scratching the surface”.
She said that the review of the 21 special care applications in the Tusla area had shown despite domestic violence having been a factor in the household, it had not come to light in early childhood and the cases had not met the threshold for intervention until they were in their early teens.