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Protecting children in Northern Ireland means supporting social workers


NIASW welcomed Northern Ireland’s first review into child deaths as a step forward but warned the report also highlighted the need to give greater support to “overwhelmed” frontline social workers.

The review, Translating Learning into Action, found the rate of non-accidental child deaths in Northern Ireland continued to fall between 2003 and 2008.

The study of 24 Case Management Reviews (CMR) between 2003 and 2008 said they highlighted the dedication and professionalism of staff involved in the cases.

However, it also found areas of concern where the system needed to be improved, including the need for senior managers to ensure staff are better supported.

The report said: “Many families and professionals were overwhelmed by having too many problems to face and practitioners were overwhelmed, not just by the volume of work, but also by its nature.”

The report added this situation was “exacerbated by overwhelming caseloads, high staff turnover and vacancy rates alongside high numbers of unallocated cases”.

Carolyn Ewart, Manager of the Northern Ireland Association of Social Workers, stressed the findings corresponded with issues raised by members on the frontline.

She said: “This report provides a vital learning tool which points the way on how to improve child protection in Northern Ireland so that we can prevent further tragedies from happening.

“It is encouraging to see the dedication and commitment of professionals recognised for the work they do in helping to reduce the number of child deaths.

“At the same time, we cannot ignore findings from the report which underline concerns raised in our recent Social Work not Paper Work survey revealing bureaucracy is preventing social workers from spending time with families and forcing them to put in extra hours.

“These issues must be addressed if children and families are to be prevented from falling between the cracks and to ensure we are delivering the best safeguarding system we can in Northern Ireland.”

As of 31 March last year, 2,127 children were listed on child protection registers in Northern Ireland, a fall of 11% from 2011, but an increase of 18% since 2007.

The 24 cases reviewed in the CMR report related to 45 children. Of these, 18 dealt with the death of a child of which four were as a result of a physical or sexual assault; six were due to unexpected death for which no cause was established and eight young people died by suicide or accident.

The remaining six non-death related case reviews included issues such as the serious injury of a child, poor standard of care of children and problems in how professionals worked together.

The review called for earlier intervention with families at risk; longer involvement of services with some families; better co-ordination between professionals and improved support and supervision for staff by senior managers to ensure workloads are manageable.

The report also said ways needed to be found to inform the public about the lives some children lead and the support available to them, along with highlighting the success of agencies in helping improve lives so confidence in the child welfare system can be boosted.