Locked down and vulnerable: ‘It’s the kids we don’t know about. That is the worry’

Locked down and vulnerable: ‘It’s the kids we don’t know about. That is the worry’

If your fridge is stocked, the house is warm and everybody in the family is healthy and talking to each other civilly – at least most of the time – you’re doing well. But that doesn’t mean pandemic living isn’t a struggle.

For families who came into the lockdowns without any of the above, life’s difficulties have been compounded within the home, while the outside scaffolding of support has also fallen away. Schools, early years settings, community services, primary care and welcoming homes of extended family and friends, nothing is there in the same way for them despite the best efforts of all.

Tusla, the Child and Family Agency, is the State organisation with the responsibility of looking out for children and trying to improve their chances of a better life. With 5,258 employees and a 2021 budget of almost €900 million, it deals with child protection, alternative care, family and education support, as well as funding and working with domestic, sexual and gender-based violence (DSGBV) services.

It’s a difficult job at the best of times, but, one year into the pandemic, what are they seeing?

All those interviewed for this article worry that right now there are “less eyes” on vulnerable children and stress that all their services continue to operate, albeit it in a different way.

Here are their individual perspectives.

Kate Duggan Director of services and integration, National Management team What I am seeing: We’ve kept our focus on the three areas that we predicted would be most affected: child protection; children in care; and domestic, sexual and gender based violence (DSGBV) services. However, “there is no part of our service that has stopped; it might have changed in terms of moving to a virtual or online response, but where face-to-face was required it has absolutely taken place”.

When schools are closed, Tusla sees a drop-off in the numbers of children being referred for concerns about their welfare. In the second week of January, these had dipped to 990 a week from the average 1,500 a week, following a similar pattern to when schools first closed last March. They expect another surge in referrals when they reopen.

Overall, the number of children coming into care has remained the same, with 648 children admitted between January and September 2020, compared to about 650 in the first three quarters of 2019. There were about 5,880 children in care, down 87 on the corresponding period the previous year.

On the positive side: The strengthening of interagency co-operation and engagement with other statutory partners such as the Garda and the HSE. She believes there has been an innovative response to a very difficult situation and praises the “adaptability and agility” of staff.

While loath to describe it as a positive, she says the “shining of light” on domestic violence in recent months and increased public awareness is “an outcome that we are grateful for”. Tusla has been given an additional €2 million funding to help support the 60 agencies that deliver DSGBV services on its behalf and who expect another post-lockdown surge in demand.

Post-pandemic challenges: “The cases that we are seeing are becoming more complex,” she warns, but Tusla welcomes additional funding for 2021, which will equate to about 100 frontline posts in social work, social care, therapeutic services and backup administration. Currently, she adds, they are looking at where the greatest need is across Tusla’s 17 operational areas for allocation of those posts.

Joy McGlynn Manager, Dublin North City What I am seeing: An increase in the number of children going into care in our area, with a lot of challenges around adolescents in particular. “Where there are already fractured relationships in families or where adolescents are already quite challenging in their behaviour, when we have added no schools, no youth services, no friends ...it has been a real pressure cooker in families.”

Although figures won’t be released until March, their local data is, she says, showing a big increase in admissions to care for adolescents. “They just can’t live in the same house any more – either their parents are saying they can’t do this any more or the child is saying I can’t do this, or there are other things.”

Sadly, she says, children needing to go into care has always been a feature of social work in this area, due to addiction and complex needs that come with homelessness and domestic violence.

At the best of times, it is a challenge to find sufficient foster carers in the Dublin area, particularly for adolescents who often end up in residential care. Foster parent recruitment has been moved online and the Department of Children has given them some additional regulations to allow them to do some of the assessments remotely, “so we can keep recruiting foster carers”.

In keeping with public health advice to reduce face-to-face contact, staff have had to prioritise visiting higher risk cases, such as children who are already subject of a child protection plan, and children in care where the placement is problematic.

“If there was any urgent child protection concern that came to our attention, we would absolutely make home visits,” stresses McGlynn, who has about 220 staff reporting to her, about half of whom are social workers, the rest are in family support, social care, projects and administration.

With much of their work dependent on building relationships and trust with families, she regrets that masks, social distancing and more online communication makes everything “a bit colder”.

“Our social workers are out there really trying to keep families together. I don’t know if that’s well understood.”

In the summer, after the first extended lockdown, they saw how the situations within some families they had not visited had deteriorated. “The worry again, now we are in that level of restrictions again, is that will we see similar. We can only act on what we know and we make our best decisions about who needs to be visited and who doesn’t.”

She fears there are children suffering from neglect who just aren’t being seen as often by as many professionals, particularly when schools are closed. Parents sometimes want the help of Tusla’s services, but often they don’t.

“They are trying to prevent us from intervening because they are afraid their children will be taken into care, so the more professionals who are engaged with the family and seeing the children, the easier it is for us to determine whether the children are safe or not.”

An increase in domestic violence has been widely reported, with a knock-on effect for child protection teams. “We intervene in all those cases where gardaí have visited the house and there is a child present. We consider it and investigate it under the category of emotional abuse, in terms of a child living in a house where they’re seeing it.”

Looking after young people leaving care is another element of their work, trying to keep them in education, supporting and equipping them for remote learning. For care leavers who are not able to engage in education, “a lot of support is needed for them around their mental health, particularly at the moment when they are very isolated”.

Working from home can be very isolating too for staff, who may be having really hard conversations with people. A lot of support social workers get in doing this very difficult work, she says, is from their teams and managers, so they’re trying to allow people to spend some time in the office, to facilitate some of that in-person back-up.

On the positive side: In the switch to more online work, “sometimes the adolescents, particularly those in care, are able to engage with us better on a WhatsApp video call”.

Post-pandemic challenges: They’re beginning to look at what children will need in terms of catching up, through primary care and parenting supports. “We are going to have more children in care,” she says, “so I need to look at my resources at how their needs will be met.”

Mental health supports will also be a priority, making sure these are available through schools. “Everybody feels anxious at the moment. You don’t want that to develop into anything more sinister for a young person.”

Siobhán Murphy Child protection social worker, north Cork What I am seeing: The pandemic has had a huge impact on access arrangements between children in care and their birth parents. “There’s very little face-to-face contact between birth parents and kids,” says Murphy, who is on a Tusla team based north of the Lee in Cork, working predominantly with children in care but also with children in the community who have been referred and assessed. This disruption of access is really difficult for both sides, she says. “We’re doing as much as we can with video calls.”

The team also facilitates foster carers in sending parents videos and vice versa. Children in care crave contact with their parents and normally it is very much part of their routine and stability, she explains.

Social workers try to maintain face-to-face contact for parents whose newborn babies have been taken into care, or where children are newly in care.

Now in her sixth year in the job, it has been the “strangest but without doubt the busiest year”. Social work is very relationship based, she says, being all about meeting children and families.

“You might spend half an hour colouring with a child getting to know them. We can’t do any of that now because of Covid.”

Child protection conferences take place through group phone calls. These can be very difficult meetings for parents to sit through, she says, but at least when social workers are with them in person and going through their report, they are able to highlight positives as well as name the concerns.

“It’s just easier in person; you can see their reaction and they can see you. On the phone it is very blunt.”

Likewise, child-in-care reviews are all telephone meetings. In normal times, they’re very informal affairs where Murphy would sit around table with the child, parents, foster carers and the chairperson. Now it’s difficult to gauge people without being able to see their faces and sometimes hard to determine who’s talking, “especially for parents if there are a few professionals on the line”.

She finds it “very lonely” working from home. “If something particularly difficult happens on a case, you might want to turn to a colleague and say will you just listen to me for 10 minutes ; we don’t really have that.” However, they can always phone somebody and have online video team meetings.

Many of the community services have had to stop, with children and teenagers no longer able to attend breakfast and afterschool clubs, family resource centres or youth groups. Teenagers being at home all the time puts extra pressure on foster placements.

If the teenager has additional needs, foster carers are “going to be pushed to the limit to manage that”. She and her colleagues try to support them “because placement breakdown is horrific for any child, particularly in a pandemic where you would be mixing households”.

Services that Tusla organises both for children in care and those in the community, such as occupational therapy, speech and language, direct therapeutic work, has stopped on a face-to-face level.

“It is like another loss for them and I think it is really having an impact.” However, “it’s the kids we don’t know about, that is the worry”.

Schools are usually part of the “safety network”, which may include an aunt, a neighbour and a doctor, that is put in place around children who have been referred and Tusla is monitoring in the community. Even during lockdown, she says, some schools are doing one-on-one Zoom calls to check in with those children, which is a great help.

On the positive side: Safety networks around families have proved their effectiveness. Murphy believes the challenges of the past year have helped parents realise not only the strengths they have themselves but also how they can rely on others for support.

“Even when this is over, they will know those people are still there to help.” This, she adds, is “more empowering for families because the safety network is a group of people around them who are less threatening than social workers and easier for them to deal with”.

Post-pandemic challenges: “I think wait lists are going to be huge for all services because they have stopped.”

Heather Wilson Prevention, partnership and family support manager, Co Mayo What I am seeing: A much higher number of families coming to food banks and more parenting problems because children are in the house all the time. There are more mental health issues among parents who are struggling both with the pandemic and to manage children.

Pressures have been exacerbated where parents are separated but living in the same house. Also abuse of alcohol, which was a huge, ongoing issue anyway, is being reported more.

“Maybe before, somebody was drinking outside the house. Now they’re doing it inside the house and that brings another layer of difficulty, as if things weren’t difficult enough.”

With families’ financial and emotional resources depleted, there is much more demand on support services such as family resource centres, St Vincent de Paul and Mayo Women’s Support, previously known as a refuge, and the ISPCC.

At a basic level, she believes it is about how people’s connection with extended family and community has become so distant. Her office launched a family support line “to help families know what services there are and to access them quickly, but also to know there is somebody at the end of the phone”.

She manages an aspect of Tusla services where parents are free to engage, or not, as they so wish, unlike the statutory child protection side. Family support is primarily preventative, with parenting programmes aimed at building resilience and skills.

Wilson doesn’t believe there is any important work they have been unable to do, “but we have had to do it in a different way”. They switched to delivering Common Sense parenting programmes online but “dipping in” to have brief face-to-face contact with families where necessary for a review.

Mayo doesn’t have waiting lists in terms of child protection or family support and all cases, she says, have a Tusla worker assigned. At the start of the pandemic they did a risk assessment on every case, continuing to visit families they’re more worried about, while maintaining online contact with others.

“Sometimes it is about doing work in the back garden and doing more visits for a shorter period of time.”

On the positive side: The online delivery of parenting programmes has enabled them to reach far more parents, who now need neither a car to travel to a centre nor hours of childcare to access the support of a parenting group. However, there will always be parents who will benefit more face to face, so she envisages continuation of a blended approach.

Another positive has been that while Tusla in Mayo already had a very good network of relationships with community services, “this has shown us those services are absolutely key to meeting the needs of children and families in their own communities in the most responsive way possible”.

Post-pandemic challenges: They are already looking, with the community-based services, at innovations that have worked and would be worth retaining. She is also seeking additional training for family support workers in working with separated families.

“We fund family support workers in some family resource centres,” she adds. “People sometimes don’t want to be seen to come to Tusla for a service, so it’s a way to provide a service without having the name.”

Mary O’Brien Senior child and family network co-ordinator with the prevention, partnership and family support team, Tallaght and Dublin 12 What I am seeing: For families already living with deprivation and poverty, social isolation and lack of community-based space adds to their challenges. They have children at home 24/7, some with additional needs, and often in cramped accommodation.

In her area of work, the inability of children and teenagers to get out of these environments and mix with friends in clubs and activities is having a big impact on families. There’s no respite for parents, particularly for those coping with children with additional needs.

Although, she says, “I am always amazed by the resilience of parents. They love their children so much, they do everything they possibly can.”

Her area has a strong tradition of interagency collaboration and “we all pulled together”. She singles out one initiative: when Barnardos had to close its local childcare setting in the first lockdown, its cook and kitchen continued to prepare hot meals that Tusla staff delivered to 357 adults and 758 children once a week from April to June. These visits to the doors were a vital way of connecting with families.

“They got to see that Tusla does more than one job because sometimes it is associated only with social work and child protection, hard things. What we’re trying to do is change the face of that.”

The biggest issue of working under lockdown is not being able to make home visits, unless it is an emergency. That was the case, the week we speak, when they had a lone parent on the phone who was ill with Covid and the family support team went out immediately to organise medical attention and make sure the children were safe.

“When you’re familiar with a family, it can be a lot easier to get in the door if they have a relationship with you.”

Meitheal, which O’Brien explains as a way to help children who have more than one need, is a huge part of her work. What she loves about it is that parents and children tell them their strengths, needs and wants.

“We bring those services around the table and we have a friendly discussion and we make an action plan.” This work has continued online and, when permitted, face to face.

Some 50 meitheals were requested between July and December in 2020, she reports, and, out of those, 48 families actively engaged and accepted supports.

On the positive side: Many teenagers who suffer from anxiety have adapted very well to online learning. With education being a key to breaking the cycle of poverty, she believes this may be something to look at in the future.

For some families, online access to, say mental health supports for children, made them easier to access.

Post-pandemic challenges: “We’re going to continue to have new challenges, Covid or not Covid.” After the first lockdown, there was an influx of people seeking help, for issues such as mental health problems – parent or child – and support for domestic violence victims. She expects something similar when this comes to an end.

O’Brien also worries about waiting lists for primary care and for some of the Tusla-funded services in relation to therapeutic and parenting support. But she is heartened by the high level of communication and co-operation during the pandemic between services, which can continue to work together to provide the right help for families. “Covid has reminded me that it takes a village to raise a child and family support is at the heart of everything me and my team do.” If you are concerned about a child, contact your local Tusla duty social work office; details at tusla.ie/get-in-touch