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Tusla staff and children in care identified in attacks on social media

Ireland’s child welfare agency has made almost 200 requests to social media companies about online abuse targeting social workers or children in its care.

Data released to The Times shows that Tusla has identified 355 offensive posts across various platforms since 2019 in which staff members were named or children could be identified.

The agency said there had been an increase in the “severity of social media targeting” of its workers and that it was increasingly looking to legal remedies in cases where a credible threat had to be met with court orders.

“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,” it said in a statement.

The figures show that Tusla has approached social media companies about abusive or threatening posts 199 times in less than three years. Almost 85 per cent of the posts were on Facebook, with the remainder spread mostly across YouTube, Twitter, WhatsApp and Tattle Life. Each request could cover multiple posts, the agency said.

Among the content flagged by Tusla were death threats to two staff members, photographs of workers’ children and homes being posted online, and video of staff leaving their offices and court buildings. In one case Tusla said that a person convicted of assault against a staff member posted defamatory comments about them while on appeal. In another case the date, time, location and name of a hotel where a staff member was on holiday with their family was posted.

The content also included posts that made it possible to identify children in care. In one instance the name, address and location of a foster parent and child were published along with photographs. The agency also gave examples of sensitive case files being posted, false and malicious allegations being directed at staff online, and photographs of social workers bearing “grossly offensive captions”.

Bernard Gloster, the chief executive of Tusla, told an Oireachtas committee last year that he was concerned about the “increasing threats and intimidation” towards individual staff. He said the perpetrators were a relatively small cohort of people but that the online treatment of some staff was “a source of serious concern”.

A spokeswoman for Tusla said that supporting staff in their work and protecting them from unwarranted negative attention was of “paramount importance” to the agency.

“We take violence, harassment and aggression towards staff very seriously,” she said.

“Attending the needs of children and families is a priority and, when this is done, and where a risk is identified and assessed, we make considered decisions with regard to providing staff with a safe working environment while continuing to deliver these services.

“It is our experience that this is not an issue in the majority of our dealings with the public. However, when it does arise, we consider our staff to be in the same category as all front-line critical public service providers, and we take any threat to their personal safety or well being to be of the utmost seriousness.”

The Irish Association of Social Workers (IASW), which represents about 5,000 members, said social workers experienced harassment or abuse in a “relatively small number” of cases. Vivian Geiran, chairman of the IASW, said some of those cases were in child protection. “Obviously in more recent years the online platforms present new challenges in that area,” he said.

Geiran added that employers had a duty of care to their staff to ensure safe working environments and that social media platforms must respond promptly and appropriately to reports of online abuse.

The school of applied social studies at University College Cork this month published a guide to assist social workers on how to deal with online abuse and harassment such as bullying and defamation on social media. Kenneth Burns, a senior lecturer at UCC and co-author of the guide, said it had been developed to help front-line workers. “This came to our attention because of past graduates who were feeding back to us in relation to experiences on the ground,” he said.

The document noted that social workers in settings such as child protection and welfare could be targeted with posts that sought to coerce or pressure them in an attempt to leverage access, influence their decision making, or in retaliation to a decision. It said that on rare occasions there could be threats of violence, intimidation, or of unspecified repercussions.

Tusla said it approached social media companies directly about offensive posts and that Irish-based providers were generally proactive and provided assistance. It said it also encouraged staff who had been threatened online to make a complaint to gardai.

Facebook said it has a dedicated channel for government agencies to share content believed to violate its policies and that material could also be flagged through the in-app reporting tools. It said staff reviewed the content against its community standards and if found to be in breach removed it immediately.

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