Good intentions lead to implosion at DoCS?

12 Feb

Yesterday there were several powerful stories in the Sydney Morning Herald.

To quote from the second story:

Day after day DOCS staff battle fear and violence to save children on the edge of the abyss. It’s never enough, writes Ruth Pollard.

Staff call it the Department of Damned If You Do and Damned If You Don’t.

They paint a picture of a reality far removed from the hysterical media coverage and tit-for-tat politics of child protection. They have a long list of solutions and – after more than a decade of neglect, underfunding and staff shortages – a short supply of patience.

And yet, amid it all, they have hope.

The Herald spoke to a number of Department of Community Services workers – all of whom chose to remain anonymous to protect their clients and their jobs – about life on the front line of child protection.

“It’s often said that it takes three generations to recover from a major trauma … yet we are expected to see change within a month,” says William*, a case worker with more than 15 years’ experience with DOCS. “There is a political time bomb ticking here – there is a large gap between those that can be helped with early intervention and the crisis end of the system.”

And then there are the families who, after living close to the abyss, tip over. William describes responding to a call-out to a family struggling with intellectual disabilities, many children and extreme poverty.

“I am in a house with a large family, kids everywhere, living in absolute squalor, and the parents are dealing in ice. That is how they are surviving. They have been on the edge for many, many years – the department has lots of little stories – but ice pushed them over the edge.”…

I suspect you can draw a straight line back to the beginning of mandatory reporting of every suspicion to DoCS by teachers and others, and before that to the cuts that took place in the 90s and under the previous NSW`government. Go back ten years and more and you can see evidence of the rot setting in:

The Hon. VIRGINIA CHADWICK: Is the Minister for Community Services aware that an analysis of a newspaper database comparing the reporting of community service issues in New South Wales and Victoria during the period 1 June 1996 to 13 December 1996 found that 43 items reported in the media concerned contentious community services issues in New South Wales compared with 17 in Victoria? Does the Minister agree that this indicates a crisis situation in his area of responsibility? If not, what is his explanation?
The Hon. R. D. DYER: I am certainly aware of the survey referred to by the Hon. Virginia Chadwick. The New South Wales Opposition has a propensity, indeed an obsession, to highlight casework matters regarding the Department of Community Services. That is the principal reason for the focus on such matters in New South Wales as opposed to those in Victoria. I have absolutely nothing to apologise for, nor does this Government, regarding its administration of community services. When one compares the record of the previous Government and that of this Government, things that were abolished and taken away under the coalition Government have been restored by me under this Government. Infrastructure is back in place and the position will improve further.
The Hon. M. R. Egan: You just have to look at the extra money that has been provided.
The Hon. R. D. DYER: The Treasurer has been most generous in providing funding to the Department of Community Services. One need only consider, for example, the 60 child protection casework specialists. Why was it necessary to provide them? Because the Hon. Virginia Chadwick took them away. Why was it necessary to appoint 96 additional district officers? Because the previous Government allowed the system to run down. Why was it necessary for this Government when it came  to office to create 383 supported accommodation places for people with disabilities? Because the previous Government did nothing about it. These are just a few examples of how this Government has acted to replace things either taken away or not provided in the first place by the previous Government. The Hon. Virginia Chadwick might have an obsession with casework, the Hon. Patricia Forsythe certainly does, but the true position is that the Department of Community Services has more than 800 district officers handling case loads throughout the State. Those case loads relate to dysfunctional families and to people with serious problems. Is it any wonder that when those matters come before the Department of Community Services it is not always easy to sort them out?
The Hon. Dr B. P. V. Pezzutti: Is it too hard?
The Hon. R. D. DYER: It is not too hard, but sometimes it is quite difficult. The Hon. Dr Marlene Goldsmith must think there is something funny about sorting out the problems of a dysfunctional family. If the Hon. Dr Marlene Goldsmith spent just one day as a district officer of the Department of Community Services, she would have some idea of the work involved. The Hon. Dr Marlene Goldsmith apparently has no idea of what she is talking about, but I do. I know how difficult it is for a district officer to handle a case load of difficult cases involving dysfunctional families and people with multiple problems. It is never going to be easy. Though the Hon. Virginia Chadwick considers it extraordinary that a few cases are reported, when one considers the thousands of cases handled throughout the State at any given time it is not so amazing. The Hon. Virginia Chadwick is the very person who should hang her head in shame because she went through the Department of Community Services like Attila the Hun. The honourable member who seeks to interject wants to call her Attila the hen. I do not use sexist language, so I shall not call the Hon. Virginia Chadwick Attila the hen. However, I will call her Attila the Hun.

Very witty, in a NSW Parliament way, but eleven years on not so funny any more.

On the effect of mandatory reporting, see NSW Ombudsman slams govt co-ordination (PM – Friday, 26 October , 2007):

SIMON SANTOW: The New South Wales Ombudsman, Bruce Barbour, will look into the recent death of toddler Dean Shillingsworth in the same way he’s obliged to review the deaths of all children in the state. His investigation will have a particular focus on the role of the Department of Community Services, the Government’s Child Protection agency known as DOCS.
BRUCE BARBOUR: We will look at all of the information that DOCS held. We will review any contact that was made to DOCS in relation to him or his family members, and we will also review all of the other holdings that any other government agency may have to ensure that we are able to report as comprehensively as possible on whether or not the approaches and the interactions made with those agencies were handled appropriately.
SIMON SANTOW: Bruce Barbour today released his annual snapshot of the effectiveness of child protection.
BRUCE BARBOUR: The issues that we identify in our reviews have been largely similar from year
to year. And although we see improvements, there are clearly three areas which we must address. Firstly, the area of capacity. Does DOCS continue to have and will it have into the future appropriate capacity to deal with the number of reports that are coming in. We’ve seen an explosion in the number of reports and consequently a significant increase in the number of children that have been reported as requiring care and protection.
SIMON SANTOW: Mandatory reporting has led to some astonishing statistics. One in every 15 children in the state has been reported to DOCS as being at some risk. And 14 per cent of all families in New South Wales have been the subject of reports to the Department.
BRUCE BARBOUR: We need to look a the quality of the works of DOCS. Are they, when these reports are made to them, focusing on the correct cases and comprehensively assessing risk where it should be comprehensively assessed.
And the third issues relates to the role of other agencies. It is not only DOCS that has a responsibility in relation to the care and protection of children in this state, it is a number of other agencies and we have been calling for a long time for there to be better communication and exchange of information amongst those agencies. The NSW Department of Health, Department of Housing, NSW Police, and DOCS, all hold critical information in relation to families and children in crisis. And any impediments to the exchange of that information where care and protection is essentially the main issue need to be addressed…

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Posted by on February 12, 2008 in Australia and Australian, NSW politics


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