NSW child protection worker hits back at criticism after recent deaths, says DOCS staff under stress
By John Stewart and Candice Talberg
Updated Thu Jul 18, 2013 12:37am AEST
A series of recent cases of child deaths has prompted criticism of child protection workers in New South Wales for failing to remove abused children from violent parents.
A child protection officer has now hit back at the criticism, telling the ABC’s Lateline program his colleagues are heroes who have saved many children from neglect and abuse.
In NSW, child protection workers are required to sign a contract banning any contact with the media. So deep is the worker’s concern, he has broken State Government policy to speak to Lateline.
His identity has been disguised to protect him from instant dismissal for speaking out.
He works for the NSW Department of Family and Community Services (DOCS) on the front line, dealing with highly dysfunctional families and children at risk of significant harm.
“I’ve got a few babies that I have case work responsibility for,” he told Lateline.
I have a number of cases that the children could die. It’s that bad.NSW child protection worker
“To see a baby born addicted to ice or heroin, born 10 weeks premature. The baby is in the neo-natal ward, it’s about the size of a shoe in a nurses hand, and it’s so premature it’s got no lungs to cry.
“And it’s just writhing around in her hand and you can tell it’s in pain but it can’t cry. It’s withdrawing off heroin.
“This is a tiny little thing the size of a shoe and it just breaks your heart.
“I just do this job because I just think what an amazing thing to get in there and support this child and defend this child against a mother that has no idea what she’s doing.
“I want to say the case workers I know are heroes.
“They’re out there and they’re giving it their heart, and you carry this stuff away from work afterwards and it is just tragic.”
Child protection workers blamed for deaths
In 2011, two-year-old Tanilla Warrick Deaves was bashed and left to die after suffering months of abuse.
Last week her mother pleaded guilty to manslaughter. Outside the court, family members blamed child protection workers for failing to remove the child from her home.
Speaking to Lateline, Tanilla’s stepmother Brooke Bowen said she tried to convince welfare workers that other family members could care for the child.
“She should’ve been removed, no matter what… But at the end of the day, she wasn’t,” she said.
“The only way she was removed is when she was put in a coffin, and that’s sad.
“That’s the way [her father] Adrian got his daughter back, and to see her the way we did, was just unbelievable.”
The child protection worker who spoke to Lateline says he is tired of being blamed by the media and relatives of children who are killed by their parents.
“That is upsetting to me, because you’re only getting one side of the story,” the man said.
“You’re getting the parent, and often the parent, when you think about it – this child that has died, has probably suffered a lot of abuse to get to that point.
“How is it DOCS’ fault that the child is dead? Surely the parent is responsible, and we’ve tried to get in there and give it our best shot.
“But somehow it’s our fault because we haven’t responded to all the calls. Why are we getting calls in the first place if there wasn’t abuse from the parent or somebody else?
“We just can’t physically get to all the need.”
Worker says staff who leave are not replaced
The child protection worker says budget cuts and burnout have reduced the number of case workers in his office, lowering the rate of face-to-face visits with families.
“There is just so much more work to do now. In the last two years I’ve watched this freeze on – Pru Goward (the NSW Minister for Family and Community Services) says there’s no freeze on employment – that hasn’t been the case in my office,” he said.
“It’s been tough watching 10 staff – they left for different reasons, but the point is they were never replaced. That’s just unacceptable.
“When you’ve got such a high load coming in, and critical cases, and it’s heartbreaking. You cry. Sometimes you just cry it’s so bad.”
But Ms Goward says there have been no cuts to the department and no hiring freeze.
“We have around 2,000 case workers, that’s about the same number we had when we came to Government and there are additional case workers in the Brighter Futures program in the non-government sector doing the sort of work we once did,” she said.
“So in fact the total effort provided by front-line staff is pretty good.
“But of course hard to staff areas, like remote parts of western New South Wales, are difficult to fill.”
The child protection worker told Lateline the system is under stress and needs more resources to cope.
“I have a number of cases that the children could die. It’s that bad,” he said.
“They’re struggling to stay alive in their various circumstances. There’s mental health, there’s brain-injury parents.
“One parent I’m thinking of in particular that’s just abandoned children.
“They could have died and you think to yourself, ‘How can I know what that parent’s going to do next?’ And you can’t.”
The minister says changing the system takes time but says more children at risk are receiving face-to-face visits.
“We would all have to agree that we have gone from one-in-five children being seen to one-in-four children being seen, and that must tell you something about our cases and that we have freed them up to do the job,” she said.