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A social worker's perspective: We need to rethink the way we help vulnerable children

Behind most of the damage done to children are stories of poverty and inequality, writes Donal O’Malley.

Dónal O'Malley

THE CHILD ABUSE cases that have recently come to our attention must be fully investigated and responsible individuals should be held to account for their decisions. But to ensure social workers can do their jobs properly, we must not sit on our hands while we await the outcome of a probe.

We already know many of the remedial measures that need to be undertaken to address abuse. These have been laid out in the recommendations of the investigations and reports undertaken over the last number of decades, including the Kilkenny incest case, the report into the Roscommon child care case and the Ryan report.

Immediately, we need more social workers in Tusla, the Child and Family Agency, to deal with the 1,000 unallocated “high-priority” cases, to reduce the unmanageable caseloads of existing social workers, to enable social workers to respond in a more timely fashion to the 40,000 new child protection notifications received annually, and to better support foster carers and the children placed with them.

Reactionary model

But we are at a critical juncture and we must look beyond the past or indeed any future investigations into individual cases. The child protection services in Ireland were borne out of crisis and have continued in this vein ever since.

It is a model that predominately responds to specific incidences and demands individual risk assessments of children and their parents. Such a model is reactionary in nature and requires significant resources.

Tusla has not been afforded these resources since its formation and yet there has been an increasing demand for its services. It is in constant flux, allocating and reallocating resources to the areas of most immediate need, leaving it unwieldy and heading towards implosion.

This presents new dangers. A crisis-led service that comes under increasing pressure risks becoming more entrenched in its thinking and behaviour.

We see this happening in the UK where child protection services have become more draconian in their practices due to limited resources and public hysteria in the face of perceived mistakes.

This has a detrimental effect on children and their families as services become risk adverse and adjust their threshold for taking a child into care downwards leading to more removals of children.

While we can plug the gaps in the short term, we need to reimagine how we protect children. The answer is simple: In order to protect children we need to invest in our communities.


Poverty and inequality are the root causes of most of the damage done to children. Cases of child abuse and neglect are highest in communities where poverty and inequality have been allowed to fester and grow.

This fact is all the more terrifying when we examine the recent Unicef report card, which ranks Ireland as one of the most unequal societies in Europe, with almost a third of all children living in materially deprived households.

We must invest now in educational, health and social programmes aimed at alleviating the harmful effects of poverty and inequality, particularly in the most affected areas.

We also need to look at how and when we can better support parents who are struggling to cope by proactively identifying vulnerable communities and the families within them, and intervening before things start to breakdown.

By starting to address the poverty and inequality in our society now, we can go a long way to gradually reducing its cross-generational affects.

Unfortunately, child abuse and neglect will always be with us and to deal with the individual cases we need a skilled workforce. Tusla must become a multi-disciplinary service that caters for the wide spectrum of needs that vulnerable children and their families have.

If we are all committed to ensuring that children are protected and that their needs are met, the next government must then do everything in its power to protect them from poverty and inequality and not simply generate more reports.

Dónal O’Malley is chairperson of the Irish Association of Social Workers, the professional body for social workers in the Republic of Ireland.

Read: Children left with foster family for years after serious sex abuse allegations

Read: Health Board knew girl was being sexually abused in her home but didn’t tell gardaí 

About the author:

Dónal O'Malley

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