Updated 8pm with Faculty of Social Wellbeing comments

The global organisation of social workers has expressed its “deep concern” to Robert Abela over the state of the profession in Malta and the engagement of unqualified individuals to carry out social work.

Ana Rădulescu, president of the International Federation of Social Workers (Europe) warned the prime minister in a letter that the government’s continued delay in addressing the situation could discourage prospective students from pursuing social work as a profession.

In the letter dated May 16, she urged the Maltese authorities to take prompt and effective action, but the federation has not yet heard back from the government.

Last December, social workers in Malta warned that some of their duties were being carried out by unqualified individuals, including case reviews and sensitive risk assessments of vulnerable children.

They told Times of Malta that these individuals – engaged by the state as ‘social welfare professionals’ – sometimes even refer to themselves as social workers with other professionals and with people who use their services.

So-called social welfare professionals need a degree in humanities to qualify for the job. But the concern is that they have not done the necessary training, are not regulated by the social work profession board, are not obliged to abide by the social workers’ code of ethics and are not bound by the Social Work Profession Act.

The Maltese Association of Social Workers had insisted the solution to staff shortages was not replacing “such a vital role in society with unqualified staff”, but increasing wages, incentivising social welfare professionals to read for a master’s in social work and reviewing current practices to avoid duplication of work.

In May, IFSW (Europe) told Abela it was “extremely concerned with the lack of safeguarding available to service users who are not receiving a social work service by qualified social workers.”

“These unqualified individuals are neither bound by a code of ethics nor by a professional law, removing professional responsibility and therefore increasing risks to service users,” Rădulescu wrote.

'Discouraging prospective students from pursuing social work'

The IFSW said it was also “deeply concerned” about the future of the profession in Malta and qualified social workers who possessed the necessary training and skills to work with vulnerable service users.

“We understand that the relevant authorities have been informed of this issue on several occasions over the past two years.

“However, we strongly emphasise that the continued delay in addressing this situation may create a negative impression that individuals can enter any profession without meeting the required qualifications.

“Such a message could discourage prospective students from pursuing social work as a profession, which could ultimately have an adverse impact on vulnerable populations who require the support of qualified professionals,” Rădulescu wrote, calling on Abela to address the situation with “utmost urgency”.

In comments to Times of Malta this week, Rădulescu said IFSW had not yet received a reply.

She said it was “misleading and inappropriate” to refer to individuals without proper education and training in social work as ‘social workers’. It was of “utmost importance”, she added, to establish a clear distinction between social workers, professionals, and people lacking qualifications in the field of social work, yet assuming responsibilities typically associated with the social work profession.

“By distinguishing between different people involved in social services we can ensure accountability, clarity in roles and responsibilities, appropriately utilise specialised skills, and provide comprehensive and coordinated support to individuals and communities in need.

“It also ensures that vulnerable persons are protected and provided with professional social work service.”

Questions sent to the Office of the Prime Minister and the Solidarity Ministry on Thursday remained unanswered by the time this article went to print.

Faculty concerned about undermining of social work profession 

The Faculty for Social Wellbeing said in a statement it shared the federation's concern and suggested a revision of social work stipends and academic requirements to increase the supply of qualified social workers.

Deploying people without a social work warrant to perform social work duties failed to safeguard service users, undermined the social work profession and discouraged prospective students, the faculty said.  

"It is the state’s responsibility to ensure that appropriate knowledge and skills are used to provide the highest level of care for vulnerable service users, as required by the Social Work Profession Act and Code of Ethics.

"While understanding that the demand for social work services far outstrips the supply of qualified social workers, the faculty calls upon the authorities to explore, together with all stakeholders, alternative courses of action to increase supply."

The solutions, it said, must include "the reclassification of social work stipends and payment on placement; conditions of work commensurate with the responsibilities of the profession and making it compulsory for eligible persons to obtain an undergraduate or postgraduate social work qualification within a given timeframe".  

The faculty said it stood ready to be part of the solution.

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