Now that there is a season to sit back and enjoy. It has already delivered some interest, even if I just began watching today.
However, about NSW and those horrible events involving the Department of Community Services. I was at The Mine for a while today (delivering copies of my feature article in the South Sydney Herald) and chatted with someone who has experience with autistic children and the accompanying nutrition issues, which if neglected could produce the outcome we have been reading about. Beyond that I propose to say nothing about that issue.
However, consider some background issues. I have this memory in the late 80s of talking to a DOCS worker who said that there would sooner or later be a catastrophe. What he was referring to were the cuts in funding and staffing that were then happening, a result both of state (Liberal Party then under Greiner) and Federal (Hawke Labor) policies. Jim Belshaw will know much more about this, but I offer Working in Community Services: Management and Practice by Michael Wearing [Allen & Unwin 1998] in support.
Mandatory reporting of suspected child abuse
This development in response to fears of pedophilia has had its down-side. Even when, as teachers, it was being explained to us some of us wondered how on earth DOCS would cope with the mountains of allegations and investigations, especially given that many of the allegations would probably prove to be baseless. Well perhaps we have been finding out. See The state of child protection (2003) from the Evatt Foundation.
Child protection staffing
Despite the large number of child protection reports produced in recent years, staffing data are difficult to come by. If we wanted, we could describe the absence of such information as ‘extraordinary’. One of the reasons why staffing information is difficult to collect is that services are provided by at least three types of agencies: state agencies, community-based organizations (CBOs), and charitable organisations…
Mandatory reporting of child protection cases has been introduced throughout Australia. Despite some debate, it is welcomed as a strategy to reduce the incidence of child abuse. But mandatory reporting also means an increase in caseloads. An absence of employment statistics makes it difficult to ascertain a precise picture of how great has been the caseload increase. However, there are indications that the increase in caseloads has been substantial. Government responses have varied.
New South Wales
Mandatory reporting was introduced 18 December 2000. The Legislative Council’s standing committee on social issues was directed to examine child protection services in April 2002. The Public Service Association of New South Wales (PSA) made a submission to the inquiry in June 2002. The committee reported in December 2002, finding that the number of contact reports, from all sources, increased by 34,408 between 1999-2000 and 2000-01. Also in December 2002, the minister for Community Services reported that the number of reports to the department of Community Services of suspected child abuse had increased from 33,000 in 1994/95 to 160,000 in 2001-02.
In its submission to the committee, the PSA said that ‘Whilst mandatory reporting has been a major cause for the drastic increase in the number of reports of child abuse and child neglect, it has served as a useful tool in identifying the true extent of child abuse and child neglect in our community. The only true response from any decent government would be to tackle the problem head on and provide the resources necessary to deliver the appropriate service’. The PSA recommended that additional ‘850 to 900’ caseworkers be employed, and that supplementary funding be provided for ancillary staff and computer equipment. Members of the PSA had previously identified what it called a ‘crisis’ in the department and had taken industrial action (April 2002) to bring the crisis to the attention of the departmental management, the minister and the community; and to protest at dismissal action taken by management in response to publicity given to a number of child deaths which had occurred. There had also been instances of assault against frontline staff of the department.
The industrial action resulted in what has become known as the ‘Kibble joint working party’ (the PSA was represented). The working party reported in June 2002 and concluded (amongst other things) that ‘There had been a significant increase in the volume of reports of children at risk of harm made to DoCS, and greater demands on caseworkers as a result of requirements under the 1998 Act, but staffing resources had not increased in line with this growth’. In December 2002, the minister announced that an additional $1billion had been provided for child and family services. The $1billion was allocated to 875 additional caseworkers (in addition to 130 which had already been announced), and $20million for ancillary staff.
The government’s decision to increase the number of child protection workers was a good outcome. However, it should be acknowledged that the decision was made eight months after crisis conditions were brought to the Government’s attention by industrial action.
I am told that DOCS finds it hard to keep workers, however, and given 1) the nature of the job and 2) the developments since 2002-3, the latest being those now being canvassed, this would not be surprising. I am wondering just what the realities are at the coal face. For example, how long do people stay working as case workers? What is the turnover? What continuity is there? What has been the impact of mandatory reporting on the size of case loads? Are there enough qualified and experienced people on the job?
I don’t know the answers. That’s why I’m asking them, and not in the spirit of blaming the actual case workers either… What about parental responsibility, for example? How much can DOCS be expected to do? Any ideas?
Sunday update: Jim’s very valuable history and analysis
I knew very well that what I was intuiting from my own experience and position would be given professional depth by someone as experienced in public administration as Jim Belshaw is. I am grateful for Problems in NSW Child Welfare. I commend it to your attention.