Tuesday, 10 December 2019

Ceisteanna (54)

Bernard Durkan


54. Deputy Bernard J. Durkan asked the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs the extent to which a rapid response is available for children at risk or in distress with a view to ensuring a comprehensive and seamless programme to address the issues arising; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [51480/19]

Amharc ar fhreagra

Freagraí ó Béal (6 píosaí cainte) (Ceist ar Children)

This question seeks to ascertain the extent to which a rapid response is available to children deemed to be in distress and the extent to which a comprehensive follow-up is also available.

The numbers of unallocated cases, or children who do not have an allocated social worker remains of great concern to me. Tusla has identified significant numbers of unallocated cases in five of its 17 areas. In September 2019, these five areas accounted for 56% of all unallocated cases. I assure the Deputy that where a child has not been allocated a social worker, he or she is supported and monitored by the duty social work team until a social worker is allocated.

Tusla has advised my Department that special measures have been put in place to improve performance in the five areas. Staffing is the main reason unallocated cases are higher in these areas. There is an insufficient number of social workers on the teams carrying out the child welfare and protection tasks and this point has also been made by HIQA in its inspections of these areas. One of Tusla's specific initiatives is a bespoke recruitment campaign to fill the existing social work vacancies across these areas. Tusla has also put in place business support staff to free up social workers to focus on core child protection work.

With regard to rapid responses to urgent cases, Tusla operates an urgent system across all parts of the country. Section 12 of the Child Care Act 1991 permits An Garda Síochána to remove a child from a situation of acute risk. The child is then transferred to Tusla, which undertakes an assessment of the child's situation. Tusla may return the child home, if the environment is deemed safe, or apply for an emergency care order. Tusla also operates an out-of-hours social work service. This service provides access to an on-call social worker at regional or area level who can go the scene of an incident in specific cases of a serious nature.

I thank the Minister for her comprehensive reply. Is she satisfied that the supply of social workers can be addressed adequately to ensure the strength of the service is sufficient to meet the need, both now and into the future?

That question goes to the heart of a lot of the challenges being experienced by Tusla. I just indicated to the Deputy that a recruitment campaign is being run specifically for the five areas where there is the greatest problem of unallocated cases because of a lack of social workers. Tusla is also conducting a number of other campaigns to recruit the number of social workers required. It is also putting in place a number of new retention initiatives on foot of a survey of staff throughout the organisation. I believe that some of those initiatives are happening now. Tusla is trying new things to increase the number of social workers and in that context, I am satisfied. The Deputy will be aware that a shortage of social workers is not exclusive to Ireland but is also an issue in many other jurisdictions. I am satisfied that Tusla is being innovative in its efforts to increase the number of social workers in the agency.

There is a multiplicity of reasons for the shortage of social workers. It is difficult to retain social workers because the work is intensive, responsible and urgent. In that context and given the urgency of the situation, is the Minister satisfied that sufficient resources have been made available to her Department to deal with this issue? Our population is growing, with almost 500,000 more people living here than ten years ago. In those circumstances, is she satisfied that adequate provision is being made to address the issues that are arising and that are likely to arise in the future?

The shortage of social workers in Tusla is not a resource issue; instead it is an issue of recruitment difficulties as well as a shortage of social work graduates at university level. The next question deals with what we have been doing to change the latter. There have also been difficulties with retention which Tusla is attempting to address. It has a new workforce development strategy that it is beginning to implement. I am satisfied that this is not a resource issue. There are other issues at play here but Tusla is coming up with new ways of ensuring that it moves beyond the stasis of the recent past.