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Rikki Hendon: WA’s child protection system is overloaded, under-resourced and in crisis

Originally published in The West Australian 

“Child RM” is not the first young person failed by our child protection system. WA child protection workers tell me she won’t be the last.

When a story about a child-in-care hits the headlines, those with ultimate responsibility for children in care — the Minister for Child Protection and the Department of Communities — weave a narrative that individualises the cause of the tragedy.

They emphasise the child’s “challenging behaviour”, the child’s “own choices”, and advise that “the full range of the department’s support is available to any child in care”.

What message does this send to a traumatised child-in-care in crisis? That their current circumstances are of their own making because they, a child, have not availed themselves of assistance?

Such a narrative is damaging and avoids the hard truth: that the system that is supposed to protect our most vulnerable is overloaded, under-resourced and in crisis.

The facts speak for themselves.

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The public makes approximately 20,000 notifications of suspected child neglect or abuse in a given year. Just under a quarter of these contacts reveal substantial concerns requiring action.

The total number of child protection cases has rocketed from 5762 in 2014 to 8336 in 2020 — an enormous 44 per cent increase.

There, of course, has not been a commensurate increase in staff, which has by comparison increased by only 10 per cent over the same period.

It is therefore of no surprise that child protection workers are carrying more cases than is safe and manageable.

As of April 2020, 69 child protection workers in excess of 15 cases, the official maximum established by orders of the WA Industrial Relations Commission.

These figures become even more overwhelming when you discover that one “case” can refer not only to an individual child but an entire family unit.

This means that at any time, a child protection worker holding 15 cases might be juggling upwards of 40 children with complex needs.

Just one of these children experiencing an emergency can demand the majority of the working week.

Last but not least, our most recent information reveals that 857 child protection cases are on what is dubiously referred to as the “Monitored List.”

Being on the list really means that, while tasks associated with the case may occasionally be undertaken on an ad-hoc basis, the child or family does not receive the ongoing, stable support of an allocated child protection worker.

It is no wonder that, one year before Child RM’s death, the Commissioner for Children and Young People and the Create Foundation released an independent report, “Speaking Out About Raising Concerns in Care” which warned Western Australian children were not able to access their caseworker.

The Department of Communities will say there is no problem with the resourcing of child protection because it has a demand model agreed with Treasury that provides appropriate resourcing. Clearly, the model is broken and a renewed conversation about what government needs to invest in our state’s vulnerable young people is required.

So where should we start? We must begin with the principle that every child in care should be counted as one case — period. This reform would immediately cut through creative accounting for cases and reveal the true extent of the needs of vulnerable children in Western Australia.

We as a community have an opportunity to learn from Child RM and choose to take collective responsibility our State’s most vulnerable children. We must enact substantive change so that all children have a chance to feel protection and care, to have a better life. We need to ensure that the people protecting them are able to do their jobs effectively with the resources they need.

Every child counts.  

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