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The Irish Association of Social Workers: Tackling the Declining Numbers of Social Workers

  • 16 Mar 2016

Hoping to inspire the next generation of social workers for Social Work Month

by Kerry Ferguson

Social Work Helper

15th March 2016

Social work is a very challenging profession, but one that is highly rewarding. However, recently there are number of social workers in the profession are declining. With vacancies unable to be filled, vulnerable children are therefore left at risk. Negative media attention and’social work bashing‘ by politicians could be a reason for this.

The Irish Association of Social Workers (IASW) is a voluntary professional body which aims to improve social work practice standards, enhances the perception of social work and uses expertise to influence the development of policy, both locally and globally.

Dónal O’Malley is a Chairperson of the Board of Directors for the IASW. Recently, Mr O’Malley  called on a minimum 30% increase in the number of social workers to help protect children in Ireland. This not only applies to Ireland, but can be applied globally!

Mr O’Malley kindly agreed to Q&A to explain what can be done about the need for more social workers and why it is so important for service users.

SWH: What is the current situation in Ireland with Social Workers?



DO’M: There are just over 3,900 registered social workers in the Republic of Ireland. Although social work has been self regulating for a couple of decades its only recently become regulated by the State since May 2013 under the Health and Social Care Professionals Act.

There are about 1,600 (or 1,400 WTE) social workers working for Tusla, the Child & Family agency in statutory child protection and about 1,900 (or 1,600 WTE) working for the HSE in other areas such as medical social work, mental health, disabilities and Primary Care.  Our website and the Tusla website  will give you a lot of detail about Social Work in Ireland and more specifically about social work in the area of Child Protection.   The information that we put out to members during the recent General Election (#GE16) points to many of the issues that are important to social workers currently.

Why do you feel there is a need for more social workers?

DO’M: Specifically in the area of Child Protection, Tusla, the national agency with responsibility for child protection and welfare, is struggling to met its statutory responsibilities. The reports on the Tusla website (mainly “Measuring the Pressure”) will show how the Agency is falling short of its own targets (such as ensuring that every CIC (child-in-care) has an allocated social worker). More social workers are needed just to cope with the current crisis and more still to ensure that children and their families are afforded a comprehensive service.

In other areas of health and social care, there is a shortage of social workers. In Primary Care for example, there are only 80 nationally, for a population of 4.6m!

Do you think the Government is taking the right measures to deal with this and what resources would be needed for this? 

DO’M: No!

I don’t believe child protection services are a priority and certainly social work services in other areas are even less so.

We need substantially more social workers in Tusla, but also more administrative staff, more social care workers, more access workers, more psychologists, etc if we are to be able to offer vulnerable children the right protections and a comprehensive assessment, treatment and support service for the 6,500 children who are in the care of the State.

There are many other areas that require reform also, such as the Family Courts and the recommendations of Carol Coulter’s final report of The Child Care Law Reporting Project  are equally important in reforming a system and ensuring that services are more responsive to the needs of children. Again, press releases on the IASW website will outline the concerns we have in this area and what we believe needs to change.

tumblr_n7naw5B76P1sgzgqjo1_500What measures are the Irish Association of Social Workers taking to entice people to consider social work as a profession?

DO’M: We try to promote a greater understanding of the role of social workers to the general public through such initiatives as the National Social Work Awards and also through our participation at career fairs, giving secondary school students information on the profession.

Would UK fast-track schemes like Frontline, work in Ireland?

DO’M: Their are 9 courses that are currently recognized by CORU (the registration body for social work in Ireland). Some of these courses are 2 year post graduate courses, not unlike Frontline, with an emphasis on developing practical skills but we believe that social workers should have a good knowledge of sociology and social policy as well. We would like to see an expansion of the number of places available on these courses as a means of increasing the number of social work graduates.

Do you feel Ireland is losing its social work students to the UK?

DO’M: A few years ago, I would have said unequivocally, “yes”, however in the last couple of years the employment situation has changed in Ireland and there are far more opportunities here now. People will still travel to expand their horizons and get the experience of working in other jurisdictions but I think that new graduates have more choices now than the did just a few short years ago, albeit at a significantly reduced salary scale compared to their colleagues.

What measures do you think can be taken to tackle this shortage? 

DO’M: Increased funding for agencies to allow them to employ more social workers.

More places on social work training courses.

More support staff so social workers can focus on the core aspects of their job and more efficiently use their time.

What impact does this have on children?

DO’M: I believe that children are being short changed because of the lack of social workers. They don’t get to build the rapport with the person who is charged with assessing their needs and implementing a safeguarding plan. We know from talking to advocacy groups for children in care that one of the most important things that children want is for their social worker to “really know” them.  Also, I know many social workers who work in the child protection services who feel that they could and should do more for the children that they work with if only they had the time and the additional resources.

I think the outcomes for the 6,500 children would be significantly improved if the system was more responsive to their needs. Also, for the children (and their families) who are awaiting a service, it is a sad indictment that their situation often has to become quite dire before they get the help that they need.