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Our View: changes desperately needed at welfare department

In a tragic case of deja vu, the social welfare services are back in the spotlight this week after an abused toddler was rushed to hospital with injuries, even though his case had been reported to the department at least a month ago.

Some reports said concerned neighbours had first alerted authorities a year ago when the 19-month-old child was a baby.

It brings back terrible memories of 15-year-old Stylianos’s suicide last September. Stylianos, his siblings and his mother had suffered years of psychological and physical abuse at the hands of his father.

Two months later the ombudswoman Maria Stylianou-Lottidou filed a damning report in which she concluded “utter criminal negligence” had been shown by the four social welfare officials involved.

She said the welfare services had first been alerted in 2007 and noted that between 2011 and 2013 when the number of incidents escalated, “the wrong estimates were made” that led to the tragic result.

“From 2013 onwards, there was utter inaction,” she said.

Crucially, she rejected the department’s argument of staff shortages as a mitigating factor.

The initial reaction from the department was neither abject apology for their shortcomings, nor a promise to soul search and find ways of improving oversight procedures. Instead, they claimed they were being victimised and promptly went on strike.

At the time of Lottidou’s report the Labour Minister Zeta Emilianidou said that it would “help us ensure incidents such as the one involving Stylianos will not happen again in the future”.

We must now ask what changes in structure and procedures have been put in place since that report to make sure that Emilianidou’s pledge has become a reality.

The toddler is now safe. He did not die, but it definitely appears as if, yet again, the social welfare services were too slow to act. Once again, she has ordered an investigation into this latest case.

Their callous, unacceptable response to the ombudswoman’s report aside, the social welfare services deserve our sympathy. Social workers deal with the worst of human nature and misfortune. Their daily work consists of dysfunctional families, domestic violence, psychological issues and poverty.

In recent years their workload has increased as they also have to deal with the social issues of migrant and refugee families who are struggling to cope in their new lives in Cyprus.

Although certainly not an excuse for Stylianos’ tragic death, staff shortages are clearly an issue and must be urgently addressed. We cannot expect our social workers to perform better under ever-increasing workloads. The social welfare system needs restructuring.

As Akel MP Irini Charalambidou, who is also member of the House human rights committee, said after the latest incident, ordering probes after such cases emerge is simply not enough.

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