Thursday, 28 March 2019

Questions (10)

Thomas P. Broughan


10. Deputy Thomas P. Broughan asked the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs the number of social workers needed to fill all vacant posts in Tusla; the number required to have all cases investigated by a social worker within six weeks of referral; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [14280/19]

View answer

Oral answers (8 contributions) (Question to Children)

I have raised the issue of social worker vacancies in Tusla a couple of times with the Minister in recent months. All Members were struck by the comments of the new chairperson of Tusla and former Deputy, Mr. Pat Rabbitte, at the Committee on Children and Youth Affairs, where he stated that Tusla is running to stand still in regard to recruitment and retention. Although 142 social workers were recruited in 2018, 158 left the organisation. Since 2014, approximately 800 social workers have been recruited, but the net gain is only approximately 4%. The former Deputy also referred to legacy issues and cultural changes which must be confronted. What did he mean by that? What is the current situation in that regard?

I thank the Deputy for his very important questions. There are currently 321 vacant posts for social workers in Tusla. The agency is actively trying to fill these funded posts. It is acknowledged that there is a shortage of social workers in Ireland and internationally which makes recruitment of the required staff very challenging. The scale of the challenge is significant. For example, in 2018, the Tusla recruitment section appointed 142 new social workers but 158 social workers left or retired from the agency during the same period, as the Deputy pointed out. The turnover rate for social workers has fallen from 9.5% in 2017 to 7.8% in 2018. This may reflect the recent work that Tusla has undertaken to address retention issues. Tusla is operating a year-round rolling campaign to recruit more social workers and will open a graduate campaign in April, as in previous years. It is also seeking to recruit other supporting grades so as to enable social workers to concentrate on their core tasks.

Although the Deputy referred in his question to a six-week timeframe to have all cases investigated, I can confirm that all referrals to Tusla child welfare and protection services are screened immediately to determine whether they meet the threshold for social work intervention. Referrals undergo a preliminary inquiry which seeks to assess the level of risk and whether the referral relates to a child protection matter or child welfare, or whether a family support intervention is more appropriate.

Tusla has advised that a new national approach to practice, entitled "Signs of Safety", was introduced on 5 February 2018. This new approach introduced changes to the preliminary inquiry step of the referral process. The timeframe for carrying out preliminary inquiries is now five days. This step may involve gathering relevant information about the child or asking for immediate protective action for the safety of the child, if required.

Last Tuesday, the board of Tusla approved the agency’s multi-annual strategic workforce plan. I expect that this will chart the way forward in terms of a realistic approach to the personnel deficits being experienced by Tusla.

I thank the Minister. She told me last month that at that stage, Tusla had 499 agency staff and that 226 of those were social workers. What percentage of the total social worker staff are agency staff? It is welcome to hear that the turnover rate is beginning to fall. The Minister told me previously that the overall rate for Tusla was reducing to 5% or 6%, which is the normal rate one would expect in an organisation, but grave concern was expressed recently at the committee by the Irish Foster Care Association. Ms Bond, from that association, made the point that social workers have a caseload of approximately 30 children per worker, which seems an incredibly high number given that in the UK, the figure might be 17 or 18.

I also asked the Minister previously about the breakdown across the regions. Last year, there were 282 vacancies with 61 in Dublin south, 57 in Dublin west, 89 in Dublin north east, 70 in Dublin mid-Leinster, one in residential and four in national service. Those are very big deficits which remain.

The Minister made a fundamental point to me in a previous answer. She said there are only 200 to 250 social work graduates each year from our universities. Is it time, therefore, that we widened out the educational programme?

I will take some of those questions. The Deputy’s first question is on the percentage of agency staff. I can get the figure to him but what I would say is that whatever it is, it is too high.

All efforts are being made to try to reduce that. That is the objective of Tusla as well as myself.

The board has finally agreed this multi-annual strategic workforce plan, which has been quite some time in coming. It is a very significant achievement by the current board under the chairmanship of Mr. Rabbitte. It took a long time because it was a complex thing to develop but it will provide a basis on which hopefully we can approach this issue with a deeper understanding of both how to mix the staff in appropriate ways and also according to the regions and settings. The Deputy's question was around the breakdown across the regions. We have to look at the regions, the particular needs arising in the context of the regions and the ideal model of a mix of approaches or teams to support young people and children. That is all contained within the workforce plan.

Tusla told us that at the end of the second quarter last year, approximately 515 children were awaiting an allocation of a social worker, which is 130 more than in the previous quarter, and approximately 546 children did not have an up-to-date care plan. Those figures are disturbing.

Recommendation 8 in our joint committee's report on the provision of foster care services in Ireland stated that all children in foster care should be provided with a dedicated social worker. Given that 92% of the 6,300 children in State care are placed in foster care, has that recommendation been implemented? Importantly, in respect of aftercare, 1,800 young people aged 18 to 22 were in receipt of aftercare supports in Tusla at the end of the fourth quarter. That was in 2016. Is that an area that has been addressed?

Finally, I know it is a longer-term process but what is the Minister's view of the suggestion made by the chairperson that we should expand the provision of social worker courses outside of traditional universities?

It is important to put all those figures on the record because that is the basis on which we are trying to move forward and improve matters. I would make two brief points in that regard. The Deputy mentioned that Catherine Bond of the Irish Foster Care Association appeared before the committee. One of the points she made that I was particularly struck by was that perhaps Tusla should conduct exit interviews when social workers retire or move on to help us understand retention issues. That is a great suggestion. Retention is an issue. Recruitment is an issue but also the supply in order to recruit. I have identified that recruitment will be approached in a much more strategic manner now that we have a workforce plan.

The Deputy asked two questions relating to the supply. The Department has already gathered together the various appropriate institutes of higher learning, along with the Higher Education Authority, HEA, and others, to examine if we can increase the number of places for social work training. One of the key areas has to do with work placement issues. It is not just that they study in the colleges. They need a placement and we need to mainstream or institutionalise those placements. That is one of the first tasks on which that group will work to ultimately increase the supply.

Question No. 11 replied to with Written Answers.
Question No. 12 answered with Question No. 7.
Questions Nos. 13 and 14 replied to with Written Answers.