Health and care services

Challenges in children’s social care services

Addressing the “workforce crisis” in children’s social care services is critical to addressing growing waiting lists of those eligible for support, an independent review has stated.

High levels of staff vacancies have led to the cases of potentially over 4,000 children, who have crossed the initial threshold for support from statutory children’s social care, remaining unallocated.

Highlighting the extent of the impact of waiting lists in Northern Ireland’s youth social care service sector, the independent review, commissioned by then Health Minister Robin Swann MLA, outlined the need to reshape social care services in Northern Ireland in its findings published in June 2023.

The Department of Health’s February 2023 Children’s Services Monthly Performance Report showed that 1,832 cases were waiting for allocation across Northern Ireland. As 445 were cases waiting for allocation within initial assessment gateway teams, and 368 were waiting for allocation within family intervention teams, the number of children who have crossed the threshold for involvement with statutory children’s social services may be more than 4,000 as some families waiting for allocation may have more than one child.

There were also 280 children in care without an allocated social worker. The largest number of unallocated cases, however, related to a child with a disability with 739 cases unallocated.

The review further outlines that there is a lack of support and a lack of availability of services for families living in rural areas, areas not covered by Sure Start, and for newcomer families. “There are long waiting lists and services are too time-limited or, as with respite care, heavily rationed or not available at all,” the report states.

Reflecting that current service arrangements are seen to be fragmented and to be inconsistent across Northern Ireland, the review recommends that “there should be a wide and inclusive consultation which draws on the wisdom of all who have experience and engagement with and within children’s social care”.

Reacting to the report, Permanent Secretary of the Department of Health, Peter May, said: “The Department clearly recognises that there are challenges within children’s social care services in Northern Ireland and commissioned this comprehensive review so that system improvements could be identified.

“We fully accept that change is necessary if we are to meet the ever-increasing demand for children’s services in Northern Ireland and ensure that children and families get the help they need, when they need it.”

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