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.