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NI social workers warn of a massive backlog in cases due to crisis


Carolyn Ewart

Carolyn Ewart

Alliance’s Paula Bradshaw

Alliance’s Paula Bradshaw

Carolyn Ewart

Social workers here have warned of a "daunting" backlog of cases due to many home care visits being cancelled or postponed due to Covid-19.

Carolyn Ewart from the British Association of Social Workers (Northern Ireland) yesterday briefed Stormont's Health Committee on the key issues impacting the profession during the pandemic.

She highlighted the challenges it has faced over recent weeks due to a lack of government guidance on home visits and from having no clarity around the use of personal protective equipment (PPE) by social workers.

Ms Ewart said that the necessary steps have been taken to ensure social work services continue to meet need at this time, such as making contact via phone or Skype.

"During the period of lockdown, the vast majority of engagement with service users has been conducted via telephone and video call services," she said.

"However, home visits continue in a relatively small number of high-risk cases, primarily for child safeguarding and mental health assessments.

"Many 'looked after children' reviews have been stood down in the past seven weeks and clear operational guidance will be required to reassure staff that these reviews are not put into a backlog.

"It would be very difficult, if not impossible, to clear such a backlog going forward in the next three to six months."

Ms Ewart said it was essential that the Executive allocates adequate resources to meet the expected future increase in demand for social work services.

"Increased reporting of domestic abuse incidents and four domestic homicides since the beginning of lockdown highlight a growth in domestic violence associated with lockdown," she said.

"It is expected rates of child abuse and neglect will also increase during this period, and lead to a spike in referrals post-lockdown.

"The mental health impacts resulting from the pandemic, with many individuals living in isolation for a prolonged period, are yet to be quantified.

"However, as a post-conflict society we know of the significant psychological impacts associated with social upheaval and the long-term mental health impacts when individuals don't have access to adequate support."

There are currently 6,606 social workers registered in Northern Ireland, 211 of whom graduated on May 4, two months earlier than usual to support the workforce during the Covid-19 crisis.

Health Committee member Paula Bradshaw of the Alliance Party raised concerns that some parents are deliberately using the pandemic as an excuse to frustrate child contact orders, which have broken down as courts remain closed.

The MLA said she had been contacted by three men in distress the previous night who have been unable to see their children.

Ms Bradshaw said the issue of parental alienation is "a form of child abuse".

In response Ms Ewart said while this was "an area of enormous concern", social workers have been trying to mitigate the loss of face-to-face contact by ensuring this is instead available via phone and the internet.

Ms Bradshaw replied that this "virtual" contact was not happening, describing it as "very, very distressing".

Belfast Telegraph