The job of case workers in the child protection system is one of the toughest in the public service.
This week the NSW auditor general found that after five years of effort, Family and Community Services (FACS) has not been able to close the 10 per cent gap between the number of caseworkers they have the money to employ, and the actual numbers employed (although the June 14 quarter does show a slight improvement).
This is despite FACS doing many things right, including increasing pay and committing to the support of front line workers, and an overall increase in the number of case workers, according to Family and Community Services Gabrielle Upton.
Certainly there continues to be problems associated with the difficulty of changing to new legislation and a computer system that seems to be less than well integrated.
However, perhaps the problem goes deeper than this. Perhaps it is because we expect caseworkers to do the work of heroes yet most of their work is done behind the scenes and outside the public gaze.
The only time they are usually seen is when something has gone terribly wrong. Yet day after day, week after week, month after month they work to support children, parents and families often in the most difficult of situations.
It is time that we began to celebrate and honour publicly the work of case workers in child protection.
The NSW Auditor-General has recommended that the department increase its efforts to reduce the gap between the average actual and funded number of full-time equivalent case workers.
In other words, work harder to recruit and keep experienced qualified professionals in the most important jobs we have, addressing the needs of the most vulnerable children and families. This is not a new problem.
It is gratifying, as reported that the ratio of ‘case worker to child’ has improved (from 25 to 21 per worker) but this remains higher than recommended by the NSW Ombudsman in 2011.
The Department advises that at 5 July 2014, 46 per cent of the 2,070 children and young people case managed by it, and who had been in statutory care for more than 12 months, had not been subject to a placement review during the preceding 12 months.
This is a 13 per cent improvement since 2012-13, but is still disappointing and requires a considered analysis of why this has not happened.
We should use the Auditor’s report to re-double our efforts to employ to full capacity and to review the structure to ensure high level support is offered to frontline staff.
The fact remains that many child protection workers are newly qualified. These workers need support in the transition to this demanding field of practice.
This can be achieved by ensuring they have access to high quality supervision and support in the workplace.
In addition, career structures are needed that encourage excellent practitioners to stay in the frontline. This involves creating incentives including good salaries and including these senior workers’ in decision-making about child protection policy.
The capacity of the frontline workforce is central to the quality of child protection services, as it is in other fields of health and human services.
The auditor’s report has provided an important opportunity for DoCS to build a stronger workforce to better protect children and promote family well-being.
Let’s not miss this opportunity.
* Professor Karen Healy is the National President of the Australian Association of Social Workers and a Professor of Social Work at the University of Queensland.
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