Tusla equips social workers with valuable online learning tool
New initiative gives practitioners access to interactive resources based on the most up-to-date research, writes Katherine Donnelly
Education does not end with a Leaving Certificate or a college degree. New challenges are emerging all the time, but there are also rapid advances in knowledge. For any career, the key is to keep up to date with developments.
Such thinking was part of the rationale underpinning the bringing together of traditional teacher training colleges such as St Pat's, Drumcondra, and the Church of Ireland College of Education into Dublin City University. It is regarded as important for trainee teachers to study in a research-intensive environment so they have access and are alert to cutting-edge knowledge, both to aid their education and to lay foundations for a culture of professional curiosity and discovery when they are working in classrooms.
The child and family agency, Tusla, has brought that a step further with a new initiative, EPPI, giving practising social workers access to an online, interactive resource based on the most up-to-date research,
The purpose of EPPI, (Empowering Practitioners and Practice Initiative) is to increase Tusla practitioner expertise and to improve practice by applying the evidence and knowledge to the issues they encounter in their day-to-day work.
Tulsa developed it in association with the Centre for Effective Services, an all-Ireland organisation that helps to ensure the implementation of effective service through connecting policy, practice and research.
The initial purpose of EPPI is to help social workers to incorporate expert knowledge in their work with children and families and also to support them with easier access to the evidence they need.
As well as supporting individual practitioners, it brings greater consistency to social work practice across the country.
EPPI, which was launched recently, is grounded on a three-year practical learning programme called the Evidence Informed Practitioner Programme (EIPP), during which 138 social workers applied research evidence to real-life cases. The information they researched on areas such as child abuse is now available through an easily-navigated resource on Tusla's intranet for all other social workers and Tusla practitioners who encounter similar cases. The site also includes practical tools to apply in their work.
Dr Stella Owens, who led the programme in Tusla for the CES, is now seconded to the agency to embed the initiative into day-to-day social workers' practice.
Cormac Quinlan, Tusla's Director of Transformation and Policy, says that through initiatives like EPPI, Tusla wants to create an environment where staff are encouraged to grow and develop through on-going learning so children are made safer in their everyday lives.
Dr Owens says that no matter what discipline you qualify in, you have to keep up to date with research evidence.
While EPPI initially focussed on social workers, and is now being embedded into their daily practice, it is also being extended to other Tusla disciplines.
From this month, educational welfare officers (EWOs), who work with families where absenteeism from school is an issue, are among those who will be involved in the learning programme.
Like the social workers, EWOs and others will apply research evidence to real-life cases and, over time, add to the richness of the centralised online resource. "The more information, the better," says Dr Owens (left).
She also sees a potential for other professionals such as teachers, public health nurses and psychiatrists.
Dublin-based social worker Rebecca Sweeney, who works with children and foster carers, has gone through EIPP, during which she explored maintaining and selecting foster placements for children.
She gives an example of one case she examined, involving a nine-year-old child who had been in a foster care placement for six years when the foster carers decided, due to physically aggressive and emotionally challenging behaviour, they could no longer care for her.
Sweeney identified that research into appropriate supports for a child impacted by parental substance abuse was crucial to finding the correct placement and what specific supports should be implemented to prevent a placement breakdown.
She says there is currently a national shortage in placements and few with the capabilities for this nine-year-old. "Knowing the supports, characteristics of carers and level of occupancy necessary for the child led to me being able to have a very informed discussion of what was required from the carers, which ultimately led to finding the most appropriate placement, rather than the first available placement."
She found the EPPI experience particularly helpful in one of the more challenging tasks people in her position face, a court appearance.
"Courts were very interested in the case and queried what our foundation and reasoning of practice was when choosing placements, supports and working one-to-one with the child," she says.
The programme gave her the confidence and the knowledge to explain to the court and other professionals the complexities of finding a placement for this particular child. More importantly, it also equipped her to deal with an area her professional training had not previously covered.
She says that through knowing the case and the best approaches, while engaged with foster carers, professionals and the child, "my confidence rose as I used my new found knowledge that coincided with skills I already possessed as a social worker.
"I continue to work with the nine-year-old in a settled placement with a focused care plan and supports that are specific to her."