THE CHILD AND Family Agency Tusla made legal representations to social media companies seven times last year, describing the targeting of its staff for online threats and abuse as “a matter of increasing and serious concern”.
Tusla also said it was developing a new Violence, Harassment and Aggression (VHA) Strategy to help its staff, in a move welcomed by the Irish Association of Social Workers.
The issue of targeted online abuse of staff, including social workers, was previously raised as being of concern by former Tusla CEO Bernard Gloster, who has since taken on the role of CEO of the HSE.
Freedom of Information data published in 2021 showed that death threats, having children’s photos posted online with offensive comments, and one worker’s entire holiday plans being leaked with suggestions of protests against them were just some examples of online abuse that has been directed at Tusla staff as far back as 2020.
As for incidents in the last year, a CFA spokesperson said: “Tusla made legal representations to social media platforms in relation to seven cases of online threat/abuse to staff.”
Those posts were all made by adults and in the majority of cases where requests are made by its legal representatives the posts were taken down, where deemed appropriate by the platform.
But according to the Tusla spokesperson: “There has been a marked increase in the severity of social media targeting of individual staff, and while this is usually conducted by a small group of people, and does not represent the overall relationship Tusla has with the public, it is a matter of increasing and serious concern and one we intend to monitor closely and act on.
“Tusla will only request social media platforms to take down posts in specific instances that are very serious in nature, are threatening, or are cause for legal concern.”
The new Violence, Harassment and Aggression (VHA) Strategy will be launched in the coming weeks and Tusla said it has developed policies for the management of VHA and staff guidelines for using social media, as well as useful resources, systems, and advice on how to deal with targeted personal, threatening, and defamatory posts on social media.
“Tusla also provides face to face and e-learning courses to staff to raise awareness of the importance of recording and reporting incidents,” the spokesperson said.
The Child and Family Agency said staff reported 282 recorded reports of threats of violence and/or intimidation last year, the vast majority of which related to service users.
Those reports were made through Tusla’s National Incident Management System (NIMS) last year, and according to the CFA, just three related to online abuse and others may have involved online breaches of the in-camera rule.
However, Tusla does not collate how many incidents are the subject of a complaint to gardaí, but added that it encourages individual staff to makes complaints to An Garda Síochána where they have been threatened or consider an offence has been committed against them.
Vivian Geiran, Chair of the IASW, said it appeared that some people working in the public service, as well as elected representatives, are deemed “fair game” by some for online abuse.
Geiran welcomed the new Tusla strategy and said it was important that social media companies were responsive to such issues, instead of permitting abuse under the terms of “free speech” and “in effect providing safe havens for hate speech”.
He said he did not want to be alarmist about the issue but added: “Social work, among other professions, is facing a particularly acute recruitment and retention problem at the moment and this is certainly not going to help.
“Social work is a regulated profession and controlled by legislation and policies and procedures and so on and open to scrutinty and inspection. All those things are good things, but if you add in an inappropriate layer of activity that will only serve to make the whole profession less attractive and add to the already deep problems with recruitment and retention.”