WA child protection workers to ‘hard limit’ as fight goes to Industrial Relations Board

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Child aid workers say some of the state’s most vulnerable families are missing out on the help they need because staff are overstretched.

This prompted the WA Civil Service Union to enter into negotiations with the Department of Communities at the state’s Industrial Relations Commission (IRC), saying direct talks had not resulted in changes.

At the heart of the union’s concerns is overstaffing – at the same time, they say, around 1,000 children have yet to be assigned a social worker.

Official figures show that in July there were 1,034 cases with no social worker assigned.

“The child protection workers then don’t have the time, they are too scattered, to give these cases the attention they would like to give them,” said CPSU/CSA Secretary Rikki Hendon.

“What this does is put vulnerable children and families at risk.”

According to the union, there have been 612 cases of child protection workers who have been assigned more than 15 cases this year – a limit previously imposed by the IRC and which can only be exceeded in “circumstances exceptional”.

Education Minister Sue Ellery told parliament that children without a social worker still receive individualized support.

“Children in the care of the CEO who do not have an assigned case manager continue to receive services and support, overseen by a team leader,” she said.

“The type of services and support provided will be individualized in response to the specific circumstances of the child or family.”

The “absolute limit” exceeded dozens of times

Ms Hendon said the ‘hard limit’ of 18 cases had been exceeded at least 85 times.

Figures presented to Parliament yesterday showed that these pressures remain high, with at least 80 staff affected by more than 15 cases last month – more than the 75 who exceeded the limit the month before.

In July, seven staff members had more than 18 cases, although this was reduced to zero in August.

Each case may include more than one child covering, for example, an entire family.

“For a child to have an open case for child protection, there has to be a very serious concern in that family, or in that young child’s life, so the work that needs to be done is quite intense” , Ms. Hendon said.

Rikki Hendon speaks to child protection workers feeling the pressure of rising caseloads. (ABC News: James Carmody)

“Child protection workers have to do an important job in these cases, have to get to know the families, know the foster families, know all the supports in the child’s life and obviously know the child too.

“It requires workers to have that time and effort to be able to invest in those cases, but if they’re spread too thinly it just doesn’t happen.”

This year’s state budget contained an additional $114 million for the child welfare system, including provision for 36 new staff.

At the time, the government said that for the first time in almost a quarter century, the number of children in care had fallen.

The opposition wants answers on the crisis

Opposition child protection spokesman Nick Goiran said the workload pressures were akin to what was happening in the healthcare system.

“The information that has come out is the child protection equivalent to the crisis of the ambulance ramp-up,” he said.

“We know what happens when social workers are overworked – we have children who literally disappear and we have children placed in unsafe environments.”

Goiran wants Minister Simone McGurk to apologize to workers.

“It is a great sadness that we now have child protection workers literally walking up to the industrial relations commissioner to have a private hearing,” he said.

A man in a suit is watched by a woman.
Nick Goiran says children are left in “unsafe environments” because there aren’t enough staff. (ABC News: James Carmody)

A state government spokesperson defended its record on child protection.

“Since taking office, we have increased spending on child protection by almost 25% and increased child protection staffing by almost 30%,” the spokesperson said.

“This includes 224 full-time equivalent frontline social workers.

“At the same time, last year the total number of children in care in Western Australia fell for the first time since 1997.

“Communities remain committed to addressing vacancies within the child protection workforce and continue to manage an agency-wide recruitment pool of child protection workers. State.”

Other Emerging Signs of Strain

In a statement, the ministry highlighted a $36.7 million commitment in the budget to provide and improve child protection services.

He said he was managing caseloads in accordance with a 2007 IRC order and noted “the upper limit” of 15 cases per qualified child protection worker, “with up to 18 cases in certain circumstances”.

A small child's hand resting on a woman's shoulder.
The department says it continues to manage a statewide recruitment pool of child protection workers.(ABC News: Billy Draper)

“Communities takes the concerns of its staff seriously and encourages staff to raise issues affecting their ability to perform tasks directly, through supervisory meetings or with senior management,” a department spokesperson said.

“Communities remain committed to addressing vacancies within the child protection workforce and continue to manage an agency-wide recruitment pool of child protection workers. State.

“Communities will not comment on cases brought before the Western Australia Industrial Relations Commission.”

There have also been other signs of strain within the department, with a total of 19 business continuity plans activated between May and July – 15 due to “staff burnout”.

These plans allow parts of the ministry to get rid of certain functions and responsibilities to focus on “the delivery of essential front-line services”.

Affected areas include service delivery units in the North Metropolitan and Midwest Gascoyne areas, as well as the NDIS worker screening unit.

Other units included those responsible for complaints, individualized services, institutional care and specialist care and accommodation.

The Kath French Secure Care Centre, which provides intensive short-term “intervention” and round-the-clock care for some of the state’s most vulnerable children, has also activated its plan.

The ministry did not specify which areas had been affected by staff shortages, but said loss of access to buildings, IT infrastructure, key equipment or third-party vendors could also mean plans needed be activated.

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