There are 4,282 child protection cases awaiting allocation of a social worker, including over 650 that have been judged as ‘high priority,’ according to Fórsa. In evidence to the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Children and Youth Affairs yesterday (Tuesday) the union said a minimum of 285 additional social workers were needed to bridge the gap, and that 8% of existing social work posts were currently vacant.
Speaking to the Committee, Fórsa official Éamonn Donnelly outlined a range of recruitment and retention difficulties regarding social workers in the child protection area. They include the complexity and challenging nature of the work, the ready availability of posts in the UK, a cumbersome recruitment process that favours the use of relatively expensive agency staff, and a rising “blame culture” that discourages young social workers from going into the child protection field.
“Many young social workers who enter into the workforce are immediately challenged by the demanding nature of child protection social work. Typically these would be college graduates in their early to mid-twenties who can opt to travel to countries like the UK,” he said.
The union also said a high proportion of child protection and broader social work issues were concentrated in urban areas, where housing and other costs of living could be prohibitive for newly-qualified graduates. This also limited the attraction of social work as a career.
Mr Donnelly called for a review of the social work career structure to attract more young people, and to retain the accumulated skills of experienced staff. He said that social work career structures had not been examined for over 15 years, despite the growing complexity of child protection challenges and practise.
“Innovative ways need to be found to provide a gateway for college entrants to choose social work as a profession. On entry into the workforce, this gateway must be developed into a pathway, whereby social workers can see the prospect of career progression as their levels of experience grow. Automatic advancement from basic grade to senior grade social worker, based on protocols and checkpoints, would provide a clear vision of career development at little or no cost to the State, as those levels of posts already exist in the system,” he said.
Mr Donnelly also identified a need to develop specialist expertise in the service. “Having garnered years of experience, it is not uncommon for a social worker to excel in a particular area of expertise. But this is not reflected in current structures. The service would benefit greatly from converting specialist expertise into a model of advanced practitioner working. To complete the journey, this expertise and experience can be of further benefit if imported into posts that have responsibility for service planning and delivery,” he said.
The union also said that the profession was predominantly female, which had the effect of exacerbating staff retention difficulties. “As social workers become more experienced, there is a correlation between work demands and increased family pressures. An overwhelming percentage of social workers are female and they find it increasingly difficult to achieve a level of work-life balance. It is also inevitable that there will be large tranches of maternity and parental leave,” it said.