Gippsland children in out-of-home care are being left out of decisions about how often they see their families, where they live, and where they attend school because case workers are swamped with paperwork, a researcher has found.
- PhD candidate Lynda McRae says case workers are supposed to see children in care at least once a fortnight, but this is not happening
- Her study has found case workers in Gippsland are bogged down in paperwork, and sometimes live a long way from their clients
- The Victorian Government has appointed a new practice leader position, but Ms McRae says this is not enough to solve the problem
Federation University PhD candidate Lynda McRae interviewed 30 case managers from the child welfare sector in Latrobe City, South Gippsland, Baw Baw Shire, and Bass Coast as part of a research project.
Under both Victorian legislation and human rights law, children should be involved in making choices about their care.
However, case workers said meeting this legal obligation was simply not possible because paperwork took up the majority of their time.
“It’s a real irony, because they’re reporting in but they’re not seeing any of the young people anywhere near the amount they’re supposed to be,” Ms McRae said.
“There’s a big gap between what is there, enshrined in legislation and embedded in policy, and what is actually possible and practical on the ground.
“[Children in care] are supposed to be seen between every week to every two weeks, and certainly on the whole that’s not regularly happening at all, and there are anecdotal stories about kids just not being seen full stop before the major decisions are being made about them.”
Sale’s Heather Baird grew up as a ward of the state and runs A Better Life for Foster Kids in Gippsland, which provides clothing, toys, and support to foster families.
She liaises with foster carers on a daily basis.
“Kids very rarely, unless they’re playing up, see a child protection worker. It’s as simple as that,” Ms Baird said.
“I got a question from a carer today … they hadn’t seen any case workers since 2018.
“I’ve heard of kids who have gone for five years without seeing a case worker.”
‘It’s a crisis, there’s no mistaking that’
State Minister for Child Protection Luke Donnellan said the Government had appointed a new practice leader position to try to ensure young people in care had their views sought.
However, Ms McRae said one practice manager was not enough.
“My findings clearly indicate there is far more required in this space than the appointment of one practice leader,” Ms McRae said.
Her study found, while paperwork was a large contributor to the severe lack of face-to-face contact between case workers and kids in care, there were many other factors at play.
“It’s a crisis, there’s no mistaking that,” Ms McRae said.
“There are crisis levels of placement instability because of the shortage of carers coupled with the rise of kids coming into care and the shortage of beds in the region.”
Ms Baird said geographical distance between case workers and their assigned children could make visits very difficult.
“We’ve got kids in Sale originally from Wagga Wagga and their case worker is in Preston,” Ms Baird said.
“I’ve got a family in Rosedale and their caseworker is in Portland.”
Mr Donnellan drew on statewide figures and said the percentage of children allocated caseworkers had grown from 81 per cent to 90.4 per cent since 2014.
But Ms McRae said, while the rest of the state might have improved in allocations, inner Gippsland still had the highest number of child protection substantiations in the state.
“I am led to believe [inner Gippsland] has the highest numbers of kids coming into care nationally — hence it is extremely challenging to ensure such a high percentage of kids can be allocated to workers,” she said.
“It would be very helpful if these stats were broken down according to regions.”
A report by the Commission for Children and Young People published in November 2019 showed that in Victoria the number of children in out-of-home care grew from 3,767 in 2008/2009 to 7,863 in 2017/2018.
In that same period, the number of child protection reports received tripled from 42,851 to 115,600 despite a 73 per cent increase in State Government funding.
According to the Victorian Government, there were around 900 foster carers in the state.
Ms McRae said this meant children had limited options to choose from, in terms of their placements, they were also often placed a long distance from their case workers, or were not assigned case workers at all.
“Frontline workers are saying ‘we’re actually getting further away from [meeting legislative obligations]’,” Ms McRae said.
Case workers told Ms McRae paperwork, compliance and placement instability had spiralled in the past five years.
“They’re saying it is harder now to see young people than at any other time,” Ms McRae said.
Mr Donnellan said the Government was acting on problems addressed in the study.
“While we know there’s more to be done, since this study was conducted we’ve done an enormous amount of work to increase staff and lower caseloads for child protection practitioners,” Mr Donnellan said.
Ms McRae also noted education levels in staff also varied between Gippsland child protection workers and their metropolitan counterparts.
Despite Gippsland having the highest demand for workers, there was no university-level social work course on offer in the region.
One senior participant in the study said, while the State Government had funded new positions in the sector, there were not enough appropriately qualified people to fill the positions.
“Our teams are slowly starting to fill, but the system is forced to play catch-up and they are doing this with a very inexperienced base, mostly diploma-qualified,” they said.
“I don’t think the Minister and the policymakers truly know or understand that, and the impact it has on the work.”