Child protection facing disaster

The recent tragedy involving a child known to Community Services in Wollongong has highlighted the serious consequences of having inadequate staff numbers to protect children at risk in NSW.

Child protection caseworkers at the Wollongong office took action last week because protracted understaffing and ongoing job cuts are leaving vulnerable children in danger of abuse and harm.

Despite an initial denial that it records vacancy rates, the Department of Community Services has now admitted the Wollongong office is suffering a vacancy rate of 22per cent.

Elsewhere in the state, our members report vacancy rates are as high as 40per cent – more than double the vacancy rate identified as inadequate by the Auditor-General in 2010.

Inadequate resources and a high vacancy rate means they simply cannot respond to many children assessed as being most at risk of harm and abuse.

It is a point lost on the Minister for Family and Community Services, Pru Goward.

She continues to deny any link between child protection caseworker numbers and the recent preventable tragedy.

It’s true, there’s rarely one single reason behind a tragedy.

Aircraft mechanics subscribe to the ‘‘swiss cheese’’ theory of risk management. That’s the idea that one error is unlikely to bring a plane down, but when a few of them line up – like holes in swiss cheese – disaster can strike.

We can apply the same theory to child protection. Unfortunately, every child in our community is not cared for in a stable, loving family.

For these vulnerable children, we have a child protection system. But when that system is full of holes, sometimes the holes are going to line up.

Caseworkers across the state are fed up with taking the blame for a system stretched to the limit.

They should not be left out to dry for the failures of chronic understaffing, too many kids being allocated per staff member, a computer system that’s outdated and inadequate and being bogged down in paperwork.

In the Child Deaths 2010 Annual Report, Ms Goward made a commitment to “increasing recruitment to achieve a full complement of casework staff by early 2012”. The reality has fallen well short.

Since coming to office, the state government has cut more than 200 jobs from community services and only recently lifted a seven-month freeze on caseworker recruitment. Chronic understaffing means as few as one in 10 children known to be at risk are receiving face-to-face visits from caseworkers in NSW.

It’s simply not good enough.

Ensuring Community Services is properly resourced, staffed and funded to provide the best-quality care and support to vulnerable families and children is a key responsibility of the government.

On becoming Minister for Family and Community Services, Ms Goward promised the government would ‘‘cut the red tape’’ so workers could spend more time face to face with at-risk children and their families, rather than filling in paperwork.

Sixteen months on, high vacancy rates and a lack of resources are placing some of the most disadvantaged families and communities at risk.

The ongoing care and protection of the state’s at-risk children should be a top priority.

It should be properly resourced and it’s wholly the government and minister’s responsibility.

Steve Turner is the assistant secretary of the Public Service Association of NSW.

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