SOCIAL care workers in a regional residential centre are suffering from repeated physical and sexual assaults by teenagers with behavioural issues, a health union has claimed.
It has been further claimed that social care workers in a Limerick centre are going out sick to avoid the prospect of being subjected to even more abuse from children in care, who have escaped major sanction.
The Limerick Health and Welfare Branch of Impact tabled a number of motions at the union’s recent conference in Ennis concerning the repeated assaults of social care workers in residential care centres in Limerick run by Tusla, the child and family agency.
The branch called for the union to negotiate a policy with Tusla in response to social care workers who are repeatedly assaulted. It requested the union to work with Tusla to ensure that social care workers in residential settings can transfer to community or other settings if they experience either psychological or physical health problems, or when they can no longer safely perform their duties.
The branch also requested that Tusla ensure that injuries sustained at work when dealing with clients be treated as occupational injuries and not as regular sick leave.
Tusla had not responded to a number of Clare Champion queries at the time of going to press.
There are three residential centres in Limerick that deal with children from Clare, Limerick, North Tipperary and other counties, who are placed in State care, exhibiting challenging and sometimes even violent behaviour.
One social health care worker, who works in the Mid-West, confirmed that they are often assaulted more than once a day over a 12.5-hour shift, which could continue for days.
The worker stated there have been numerous instances of social care workers in Limerick being assaulted over the last year. The worker said there were 20 incidents of assault in one centre last month. While there are safety policies in place at the centre, the worker said they are not working effectively and are not protecting staff.
“I have been subjected to physical and sexual assaults.We write incident reports on every incident. There were several incidents of sexual assault on me in 2013 and 2014 and other staff. Nothing happened.
“Social care workers are expected to come back the following day after a sexual assault, after a manager meets with them and asks if they are ok. Several staff went out sick because they were too traumatised to come back to work.”
Asked what happens if a social care worker is sexually assaulted by a client, the worker said staff are expected to go back and care for the same person again. The worker expressed concern that any social care worker that is left traumatised after a sexual assault cannot transfer to a community setting.
“The option is go back to the same environment and be assaulted again or go out sick. The safety structures that are in place are not working and are not protecting staff. Social care workers have to go back to the same centre after they are sick and work with the young person again if they are still there.”
“Statements can be made to the gardaí after an assault but there is only so much the gardaí can do because these teenagers are sometimes 12, 13 or 14. Some young people are involved with the juvenile liaison scheme and get off with a caution.
“Some young people know that nothing is going to happen if they commit an assault, so they don’t really care.”
The worker said there is no proper deterrent to prevent repeated acts of physical and sexual violence. The worker said the centre has several staff out on sick leave for years and staff have left the service because they are too traumatised to work there.
If a social care worker goes on sick leave, they are entitled to three months full pay and three months half pay.
They want this type of incident to be classified as occupational injuries.
Impact representative, Andy Pike, said Tusla does not have an effective way of dealing with situations where the health and safety of social care workers is being put at risk in residential centres.
Mr Pike said some of these children were unmanageable and were placed in centre under court orders, have severe psychological and behavioural difficulties and are in need of help.
“These teenagers are exhibiting forms of behaviour, violence and abuse and staff are expected to put up with it. When staff raise an issue with management, they are caught between a rock and a hard place because they have to provide a place of safety for the child and also have an obligation to provide a safe working environment for the staff.
“We believe the health and safety of staff is a secondary concern and the needs of the child come first. It is a complex problem. Tusla do need to develop robust policies on dealing with challenging and violent behaviour. We have too many social care workers injured at work and off on sick leave. But they are expected to come back and be assaulted again and again. The client will not respond to normal rules of behaviour.
“The reason these children are in care is that they don’t respond to normal rules and behaviour. They will do it again and again. These kids are at the end of the line because there is nowhere to send them, apart from the residential units,” he said.
“There will always be a risk of these assaults but our concern is Tusla isn’t doing enough to minimise these risks and provide a safe working environment.
“It is a very tough job. The clients are not dealt with at school; parents are not given the parenting skills to keep them out of harm’s way. The court system doesn’t know what to do with them. You can have a client with 100 offences that is 12 or 13 years of age that can’t be sent to jail; there is nowhere for them to go,” he said.
The union will now have to request Tusla to do an audit of injuries at work and examine the policies on dealing with challenging behaviour.
By Dan Danaher