Child protection caseworkers start industrial action due to staff shortages and burnout

Child protection caseworkers start industrial action due to staff shortages and burnout
  • PublishedApril 12, 2024

If you are a child-protection caseworker in New South Wales, you are known not by name but a number.

“Children say to us, ‘you’re caseworker number 24’,” said Public Service Association (PSA) delegate and caseworker Nin Bennett.

“After two months, three months, they say, ‘so, how much longer are you going to stick around?’ and when you leave that visit, your heart absolutely shatters.”

The Department of Communities and Justice is facing a crisis, according to the PSA, as caseworker vacancy rates continue to increase.

Caseworkers like Ms Bennett say staff shortages mean they are not able to do their jobs properly, like visit families and take children to appointments.

“Right now, we have such a high caseload that it simply is impossible to do meaningful work every single day.”

For some children in the system, this can mean they end up with a revolving door of caseworkers. She said the children are telling her they want consistent support.

“It is absolutely vital for them to have strong relationships and connections … they need to know and see that we’re going to keep showing up.”

‘The system that failed me’

Butchulla and Garawa man Isaiah Dawe was only a couple of months old when he was removed from his mum and placed in out-of-home care.

“I basically grew up in the system, not knowing who my mum was or the chance to grow up on Country. It was a really lonely and challenging upbringing,” he said.

Isaiah said having different case workers growing up made it difficult to build a meaningful relationship.

“Not having someone to confide in and build a relationship with because it wasn’t consistent, it was very transactional. I barely saw them, or they would change,” he said.

Isaiah Dawe is standing with his arms crossed, smiling. He is wearing a hoodie, standing in front of a bright Indigenous mural
Isaiah says more investment is needed to give children a “better quality of life”. From more Aboriginal caseworkers and carers to partnering with Aboriginal Community Controlled Organisations.(Supplied)

He said this experience was part of the motivation behind ID Know Yourself, an Aboriginal-led mentoring service for First Nations children removed from their families who live in out-of-home care.

“I decided to go back into the system that failed me and make sure other Aboriginal kids don’t have to suffer and go through the things that I had to go through. So that ultimately the cycle stopped with me,” he said.

In New South Wales, there are around 14,000 kids in out-of-home care, 46 per cent of whom are First Nations. It is one of the National Closing the Gap targets that is worsening.

Child Protection
Indigenous children remain disproportionately over-represented in the out-of-home care sector.(ABC News: Paul Strk)

Aboriginal stakeholders have said for years that the existing child protection system isn’t working.

Working with the Department of Communities and Justice today, Isaiah has seen a change.

“I’ve seen many caseworkers build meaningful and deep relationships with the kids and their families, which has been incredibly healing and empowering for those involved,” he said.

But with staff burnout contributing to the high turnover of caseworkers, Isaiah said there was an important role Aboriginal community-controlled organisations can play to reduce this.

“The kids don’t get the consistency they need,” he said.

“They need organisations like ours to help alleviate these stresses and to be able to provide that holistic wraparound support.

“Inevitably it’s the kids who won’t get the support or the guidance they really need to be able to have a better quality of life.”

Caseworker and PSA delegate Kate Birks has worked in the sector for 20 years.

She agreed that the sector needed to work more closely with First Nations organisations, communities and families.

“There needs to be family led decision making, which is something that is new to the department. And that takes a lot more time,” she said.

“We need to ensure that the family are involved in these conversations and decisions.”

A month of action

The union representing caseworkers, the Public Service Association (PSA), has launched a month of action over members’ concerns of staff shortages and burnout impacting NSW’s most vulnerable children.

Protesters stand in a group holding PSA flags and placards that say child protection in crisis
Child protection workers across NSW have begun a month of industrial action over staff shortages and burnout.(ABC News: Tahnee Jash)

Ms Bennett and Ms Birks were two of 50 union delegates gathered at the Domain in Sydney on Thursday afternoon.

The union is calling for the state government to fix understaffing by providing better pay incentives and work to actively recruit 500 caseworkers.

They also want to see foster care back in the public sector.

The PSA’s General Secretary Stewart Little criticised the role of non-government organisations and said that the privatisation of the child-protection sector was a key contributor to staffing issues, particularly in regional areas.

Stewart stands in a suit and tie in front of union protesters holding placards saying child protection in crisis
PSA general secretary Stewart Little says lack of staff retention means that “14,000 kids that are in care aren’t being supported”.(ABC News: Tahnee Jash)

“Money that should be going into the frontline is being wasted,” he said.

“In some offices around the state, we have upwards of 60 per cent vacancies in those key areas in the central west and in the northern rivers.”

Premier Chris Minns said in a press conference on Thursday that he has ‘no doubt’ that workers are overworked but that his hands are tied.

“The previous government’s reform attempts to outsource much of this work has meant that much of it doesn’t sit inside the government on the government books,” he said.

“We do want to work with the employees in that sector to get a better outcome particularly for kids that are in dire circumstances but I don’t have an easy solution.”


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