On behalf of the Irish Foster Care Association I thank the committee for the invitation to appear today. I am accompanied by my colleague, Andrew Murphy. Andrew is a project worker with the IFCA national support helpline.
The Irish Foster Care Association is the representative body for foster care in Ireland and promotes excellence in foster care. IFCA has 2,036 members comprised of foster families, social workers, social care workers, academics and those with an interest in foster care. I have included information about IFCA in Appendix 2 of our submission so I will not dwell on the details further.
Foster care is the backbone of care for children who are in the care of the State in Ireland. Ireland is unique insofar as the majority of children who are in the care of the State grow up experiencing family life. This is testament to the value of the importance of family in our society and is reflected in our legislation. We need to celebrate the fact that the majority of these children are growing up as happy confident young people who attend school every day. Children in foster care are thriving and foster families offer secure happy and fulfilling childhoods to children while supporting them to reach their full potential. A recent report by the Irish Penal Reform Trust found that, in general, children in foster care are not involved in juvenile justice. This is another positive indicator for children who grow up in foster care.
The committee has invited IFCA to appear this morning to talk about the recruitment and retention of social workers in Tusla. The role of the social worker is central to the care system in Ireland and for foster families. The majority of children in the care of the State live with foster carers. At the end of September 2018 there were 6,044 children in care, of whom 92% were placed in foster care. Some 26% of these were with relative foster carers. During the same period, there were 3,287 foster carers on Tusla foster care panels.
Tusla, the Child and Family Agency, has the statutory responsibility to approve foster carers and place children with them. The National Standards for Foster Care document makes provision for Tusla to contract other agencies to provide foster care on its behalf. The national standards document also requires Tusla to ensure that foster care placements are adequately supported and that children in care have an allocated social worker.
The process of becoming a foster carer is rigorous and is governed by Tusla procedures and guidelines for foster care committees. The procedures outline the assessment process of prospective foster carers conducted by social workers. Foster care committees are convened by Tusla and approve foster care applicants. Reports on the review of foster carers, recommendations to remove a foster carer from the fostering panel, the outcomes of investigations of allegations made against foster carers and placement breakdown are also adjudicated at the local foster care committee.
The role of the social worker is, therefore, central to all aspects of foster care.
The national standards for foster care set out a range of standards to be attained for the child, the foster carer and Tusla. Specifically, there is a requirement for the child to have a dedicated social worker and the foster carer to have a dedicated link social worker who provides support to the foster carer. A child and family social worker visits the child in the foster home and maintains links with the child's birth family. This role centres on a responsibility for the safety and welfare of the child. The national standards for foster care set out the requirements of the roles of the child in care social worker, and the link social worker. The specific requirements of each of these roles are outlined in appendix 1.
Standard 5 requires a designated social worker for each child and young person in foster care. Standard 14 requires the assessment and approval of foster carers by a trained and qualified social worker. Standard 15 requires that approved foster carers are supervised by a professionally qualified social worker, also known as the link social worker, to ensure that foster carers have access to the information, advice, and professional support to enable them to provide high quality care. Standard 16 requires that foster carers participate in the training necessary to equip them with the skills and knowledge required to provide high quality care. Standard 17 requires foster carers to participate in regular reviews of their continuing capacity to provide high quality care and to assist with the identification of gaps in the fostering service. The provision of both standards 16 and 17 are also a requirement of the link social worker. All of these standards are clear in the requirement for social workers to carry out these statutory functions. Without the required numbers of social workers, there are significant pressures on our children in care system.
The committee has invited IFCA to discuss the challenges to the retention and recruitment of social workers in Tusla. The requirements and roles of the social worker are many and varied, and it is for this reason that I have listed those requirements as set in the national standards in appendix 1 of this paper. The child in care is required to have his or her own social worker and the foster carer is also required to have his or her own link social worker. There are currently more than 6,000 children in care and more than 4,500 foster families, and they all require the services of social workers.
IFCA is aware of the current shortfall of social workers and of foster families and children who do not have an allocated social worker. The shortfall is acute in some local Tusla areas. The challenge is that the many requirements for children and foster carers, as required under the national standards, are not being met. For example, some foster carers do not have a link social worker. The impact of this is that they do not have access to supports required, particularly when the foster carer requires support in identifying pressures building within the placement. Research indicates that prior to the making of an allegation of abuse against a foster carer by a child, the foster carer noted increased behavioural problems, and many requested respite supports prior to the allegation being made.
For the child, the absence of a dedicated social worker does not allow the child to build and maintain a meaningful relationship with the person who is charged with being his or her corporate parent. It is important for children to develop a trusting relationship with their social worker, particularly if they are unhappy with any aspect of their placement. On a practical level, the child's social worker is responsible for giving consent for all aspects of the child’s life such as going on school tours, sleepovers with friends and travelling with the foster family. The absence of a social worker to give written consent may mean that the child cannot participate in the normal everyday activities of other children.
IFCA is aware of the ongoing strategies of Tusla to recruit more social workers and as is true with any employer, retention of staff is key as well as recruitment. During 2018, while 142 social workers were employed within Tusla, 158 social workers left, as a result of retirement and movement to different sectors. This places great strain on Tusla to meet its statutory requirements for children in care and for foster carers. Analysis of the reasons for movement to other employment of any staff through exit interviews informs an employer's staff retention strategies and may inform Tusla of the causes of such movement. It has been suggested in presentations to the committee by other contributors that the number of social worker graduates annually falls short of the requirements of Tusla, and that the Minister and her Department have initiated discussions with third level institutions to seek solutions.
The rationale for setting out the role and responsibility of the child in care social worker and the foster carer link social worker is to propose that some aspects of the role could be carried out by a transdisciplinary team, including a range of suitably qualified professionals. Tusla could develop teams of social workers and allied health professionals which provide a range of services and supports to children in care and to foster carers, supervised by a team social worker. The combination of roles and responsibilities could enhance the service to children and foster families appropriately but also reduce some of the requirements of the social worker, enabling them to focus on the key statutory requirements of the role. For example, a social care worker or allied health professional could support the children during access visits with their families if they are uncontested. They could also assist in co-ordinating care planning meetings or professionals' meetings and make referrals for specialist services for the child under the direction of the social work team leader. Allied healthcare professionals could support foster carers in aspects of their role, doing one-to-one work with children, whether practical or therapeutic, and offering timely support to foster carers with the link social workers retaining the supervisory role. All of this work would support the work of the social worker who always holds statutory responsibility.
Greater enhanced rights for foster carers could eliminate the requirement for the social worker to give consent and where a child is in a long-term stable placement, the foster carer could assume more autonomy. IFCA has included this suggestion to Department of Children and Youth Affairs in its submission in the review of the Child Care Act 1991. Such supports to current social workers would reduce some of their core role as well as having more manageable caseloads, and thus support retention. Other supports to the role of the social worker could be to engage an organisation such as IFCA, the representative body for foster care in Ireland, to co-ordinate and offer training and support groups to foster carers, in collaboration with and on behalf of Tusla. IFCA is in the unique position in that it currently provides such services already.
Tusla takes a child into care where there is a concern for his or her welfare or protection. Front-line social work is demanding and challenging, and social workers working in this area require manageable caseloads and higher levels of support. Consideration could be made to having a lessened caseload, higher levels of support and supervision, and offering additional allowances to those working at the front line to ensure retention of skills and knowledge.
The challenges of entering social work can be great and overwhelming for any new graduate. Consideration could be given to offering new social work staff a mentor for the first 12 months in their new role. This will support the new social workers and provide them with access to expertise and knowledge as they embark on their new role within Tusla. Group supervision and peer support is evidenced as being of great support and learning to all staff. Having forums which offer regular peer support and shared learning would enhance the employment environment for new staff. UK and Northern Ireland universities offer social work qualifications to social care staff who wish to attain a qualification in social work. These qualifications are gained through a combination of in-work placement and part-time study. Currently, any postgraduate student who wishes to study social work in Ireland must return to college on a full-time basis. This is not feasible for many employed social work staff. In addition, social care staff generally work in the areas of residential care, addiction and homelessness services, which offers them comprehensive insight into the challenges faced by children and families. These staff have a wealth of knowledge, skills and expertise to bring with them to study the requirements of social work. To attract such students, bursaries could be offered by Tusla to attract social care workers to study social work in third level institutions which will provide this mode of study, who would then be required to remain in employment with Tusla for a defined period.
IFCA welcomes this opportunity to share its knowledge and experience of foster care in Ireland with the committee, and our suggestions for the recruitment and retention of social workers in Tusla, who play a vital role in the area of children in care in Ireland, of whom there are 6,044. IFCA advocates for excellence in foster care in Ireland on behalf of our members and we work in close collaboration with Tusla to achieve this. We are fully supportive of Tusla’s drive to recruit and retain social work staff and offer our suggestions to support this. Foster care is the backbone of childcare in Ireland and requires robust infrastructure to support it. Without social workers and the required supports, this cannot be achieved. Foster carers must receive the supports required to enable them to care for children with very complex problems on behalf of the State. Supports must be timely and available, and foster carers should not have to lobby for services which are a right for children, or for the right to have a dedicated social worker to support them in their fostering role. The national standards for foster care requires that both children in care and foster carers have dedicated social workers. IFCA acknowledges that Tusla has made improvements in the allocation of social workers. However, to achieve a full complement of staff to meet the needs of both children in care and foster carers, we need to identify other ways to ensure that the requirements of the standards are achieved. This may be achieved through the implementation of the suggestions proposed by IFCA today. I thank the committee.