Analysis: families are largely frightened of social workers and the potential of having their children removed from their care.

Social workers can prompt feelings of instant fear and dread for some people. When I qualified as a social worker in 2012, I knew I would spend a lot of time explaining my role to friends and family. In the area where I grew up and live, a massive fear of social workers exists. Families are largely frightened of social workers and the potential of having their children removed from their care.

Where does this fear comes from and why does it persist? Some geographical areas with low socio-economic status experience a much higher rate of social problems such as unemployment, addiction and crime. These areas consequently require more social work intervention.

Yet this is rarely talked about openly and social workers are often used as a threat between feuding neighbours or couples within custody battles. We don't hear about the family who kept their home because a social worker supported them, or the family who survived domestic abuse and were helped through the healing process with social work intervention.

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From RTÉ Radio 1's News At One in March 2018, Tusla chief executive Fred McBride on how the agency gets a referral every 11 minutes

Stigma exists when we consider having any outside agency involved in our private family lives and a sense of shame is evident in the lack of open discussion around this. This means the cycle of secrecy and fear surrounding social work support continues, with people who could really benefit from the support of a social worker not seeking or availing of this service. Equally, people are apprehensive about making a referral when they witness neglect or abuse, as they fear they will feel responsible if children are taken in to care.

What do social workers do?

Social workers offer support to individuals and families who have been marginalised or are experiencing social problems. This could be a family experiencing poverty, addiction issues or who's rights are not being realised and who may need additional support.

Not all social workers are responsible for child protection. The organisation who employs the social worker will dictate the remit of their role. For example, a social worker employed in a hospice setting will be responsible for supporting people navigating a life limiting illness. A social worker within a disability provider would work with families to help them to access services and support family carers.

From RTÉ 2fm's Jennifer Zamparelli show, Eugene Feeney on the day to day working life of a social worker in Ireland

Tusla child and family social workers are responsible for the protection and welfare of children in Ireland by identifying and responding to suspected cases of abuse and neglect. Most families who are referred to Tusla have short term social worker involvement and have their cases closed, or are referred for family support.

How often are children removed by social workers?

In 2019, 56,561 referrals were made to Tusla regarding child protection and welfare concerns. At the end of that year, 24,827 cases were open and 5,895 children were in care. At the end of the previous year, 6,029 children were in care. Such statistics highlight the infrequency of children being taken in to care and the much more likely outcome of ongoing support being provided to families.

Why are children removed from the family home?

The Childcare Act 1991 is the key piece of legislation which governs the care of children by the state. Tusla must go to court and provide evidence in front of a judge in order to have children removed from their homes. Gardai have the power to remove children from the home In emergency circumstances only (section 13 of the Childcare Act) if there is a substantial threat so immediate that awaiting a court order could potentially be detrimental to the child’s health and well-being. Examples might be if a parent was under the influence of drugs or alcohol and unable to care for their child; if there was an immediate threat to children of exposure to sexual abuse or if there was a risk that children would be exposed to physical or emotional abuse, prior to a court order being sought.

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From RTÉ 2fm's Louise McSharry Show, Dublin social worker Jarlath McKee and foster mother Sarah talk about fostering

When children are placed in foster care for longer periods of time, this is usually because the risk to the child’s health and welfare within their family home remains ongoing. Examples may be a child whose parents are ill and unable to provide care; a child who is at continued risk of exposure to sexual, physical or emotional abuse or a child who’s has suffered sustained neglect in their family home. While the horror stories are the ones people hear the most, there are far more success stories, where families stay together and receive amazing support from social workers.

If you feel concern for the welfare and safety of any child, do make a referral. Do self-refer if you feel that your family could benefit from the help and support of a social worker. And do share your positive experiences of interacting with social workers. The more we talk about these issues, the more we normalise them and reduce the stigma which surrounds them.


The views expressed here are those of the author and do not represent or reflect the views of RTÉ