Another child protection inquiry in Victoria

Ted Baillieu has announced a judicial inquiry into child protection in Victoria, complete with “policy implemented” faux-stamp on the media release. So the policy was to have a review. Great. Didn’t the Rudd government get mocked mercilessly for this?

More seriously, it will be interesting to see what the inquiry turns up. Before its election loss, the Brumby government had already begun to employ more child protection workers, as recommended by an ombudsman’s report in 2009. From what I recall, there’s also already a known issue with staff turnover, due to the inherently stressful working environment, low pay and poor conditions.

As such, the likely outcome of this inquiry will be that more money is required. We’ll see how serious the Baillieu government is about this issue then.

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21 responses to “Another child protection inquiry in Victoria”

  1. BigBob

    Another one of worthless Ted’s worthless policy promises enacted.

    If the Federal government went awfully close to being a one termer, then I reckon this lot will really test that limit.

  2. Fine

    Yeah, a friend is a senior child protection worker. Twenty years in the field, which is almost unheard of. They’re over-worked, underpaid and don’t stay long.

    According to her, there’s also a problem in training, as the newbies arrive with a completely unrealistic idea about the job. Many are young, middle-class women, without a great deal of life experience, who have terrible difficulty coming to terms with what they have to face and unrealistic expectations about what they can acheive. And so they leave, quite quickly, in shock.

  3. Liam

    The likely outcome of this inquiry will be that more money is required. We’ll see how serious the Baillieu government is about this issue then

    Indeed. For comparison the financial outcome from the NSW judicial inquiry into child protection was $750 million in funding in addition to the ongoing budget for Community Services.

  4. BigBob

    Yeah, but Ted gets to tick the box next to a pledge.

  5. THR

    According to her, there’s also a problem in training, as the newbies arrive with a completely unrealistic idea about the job.

    This is true, but it should be pointed out that these newbies arrive with an enormous amount of good will, energy, and desire to assist others. This is rapidly exploited by the sociopaths who run the place, so that these newbies quickly find themselves doing unpaid overtime on a regular basis until their personal lives break down, and they quit from burnout. Then, it’s time for a new batch of newbies.

  6. conrad

    “This is rapidly exploited by the sociopaths who run the place”

    I imagine being a sociopath would be quite helpful in this sort of job. There’s only so many people who can meet the scum of the Earth everyday, and then put up with the violence etc. when taking children away or trying to get them do something. I’m sure working in the prison system would be delightful in comparison.

    Even excluding money issues, it seems to me it’s pretty obvious what they will find, which is that you have either ultra authoritarian laws and end up taking children away that shouldn’t have been or forcing parents to do stuff that they didn’t need to (not possible given todays legal climate, even if people thought it was a good idea), or you have less authoritarian laws and put up a greater number of bad outcomes. There’s no real solution at the nasty end of the game.

  7. Liam

    THR, Conrad, I think that kind of “sociopath” assumption’s extremely unfair to child protection and out of home care caseworkers.
    In NSW—I can’t speak for Victoria, though I would expect broad similarity—the staff turnover in the sector, including the various NGOs to whom the Government contracts a lot of the work of out of home care and early intervention, is actually relatively low compared to other areas of the public service, and the median age of caseworkers quite high. From memory, it’s around 40 years old.
    Low pay, stress, and workplace bullying remain a problem, though, definitely.

  8. conrad

    okay Liam, I’ll take it back, but I still think the only people that are going to last there (and hence get into managment) are going to have to be pretty hard in some respects. I couldn’t do that stuff for 3 months, no matter what you paid me.

  9. wilful

    child protection is absolutely lose-lose, and I bet that the inquiry does very little effective.

    Bailleau hasn’t set the world on fire, has he? Still early days, and we don’t seem to really want big reformers around right now.

  10. Emma

    I agree with Liam that the “sociopath” designation is extreme; however, I’m also a bit leery of specifically emphasising the inadequacies of young, middle-class women who work in the area. It’s a meme/explanation I see bandied around a lot, that fails to account for the sheer difficulty of the job, and can be neatly juxtaposed with the chronic underpayment of what is traditionally seen as “women’s work”, in that they are both ways of saying that such women have nothing much of value to offer.

  11. Fine

    Emma, I used that term in relation to their lack of training to deal with what they’ll be coping with, as one explanation amongst others for the difficulty of the job.

    And, yes – they underpaid and overworked, as I noted above.

  12. Emma

    But does the quality of training have specific implications for young, middle-class women? Do men or older / working-class women need less training?

    Logically speaking, if the majority of incoming child protection workers are young middle-class women, it does not follow that their failure to perform is due to their youth, gender or socioeconomic background. Some of the situations encountered in child protection are likely to be so extreme that they are experienced as overwhelming by almost all people, including men, older women and women from non-middle class backgrounds. For example, up thread, Conrad (who I assume is male, apologies if I’m wrong), asserts that he wouldn’t do this work for 3 months.

    Fine, I didn’t attribute any negative intent to your comment, I just wanted to query the reflexive piling-on of “young middle-class women” (spoilt, naive, ambitious), which seems a bit like the way we pile on “bogans” (violent, bigoted, illiterate) and other groups.

    Sorry, Robert, for going a bit off-topic.

  13. Liam

    Emma, Fine, the level of training workers have when they start on the job isn’t really the problem. In all jobs no matter how stressful or relaxed there’s going to be turnover of people who decide that the job isn’t for them. It’s not a huge problem for numbers of young workers to leave the system, except when the numbers are unsustainable for growth in the sector—and I don’t know if that’s the case in Victoria. If it is, a judicial inquiry will put a big flapping red flag on the issue.
    It’s worth noting that in the so-called “human services” staff turnover from Government agencies is commonly of the kind where someone goes to work for an NGO instead of for DHS, so it’s not as if everybody leaving the Department is always an overall loss to the job of “protecting children”.
    It’s much more of a problem in all public sector agencies when you start turning over experienced, trained workers with extensive corporate knowledge (and in the case of child protection, likely one or more specialist postgraduate degrees).
    That’s also the end of the career curve where the low pay is a problem. The pay’s pretty good for recent graduates but outside senior officer level it doesn’t bear comparison to comparable wages for similarly experienced qualified staff in other industries.

  14. conrad

    “It’s not a huge problem for numbers of young workers to leave the system, except when the numbers are unsustainable for growth in the sector—and I don’t know if that’s the case in Victoria.”

    Yes, it is the case.

    “If it is, a judicial inquiry will put a big flapping red flag on the issue.”

    Maybe, but it’s not going to tell us anything we don’t already know. The other problem is getting people that speak the languages of various community groups and are also suitable for the job (you can see the subset of possible people diminishes precipitiously here). No doubt they’ll found out that too, but it’s also something we already know.

  15. THR

    To be clear, I was referring to management, not workers.

    Sadly, it isn’t ‘extreme’ to characterise the management as sociopathic (or empathy-challenged, if you prefer a softer term), albeit, it’s a characterisation that has to acknowledge that the same management often put a nice, social worker-esque face on otherwise diabolical practices.

    The Department of Human services is essentially structured like a kind of Panopticon colliding with a Matryoshka doll. The workers surveil the ‘clients’ (i.e. ‘at risk’ families), the middle management monitor the workers, and the head honchos keep tabs on everybody. The workers, for the most part, want good outcomes for ‘clients’ – the imperatives of the management are usually directly antithetical to this (i.e. management care only about KPIs, minimising bad press, staying within budget, and ‘managing’ a workplace in continual chaos).

    If you’re too busy rigging statistics on KPIs, and suppressing dissent among the workforce to respond to children at risk of abuse, then sociopathy may be an appropriate designation.

  16. THR

    Some other points:

    Wages in Vic are the lowest in the country.
    Turnover is among the worst in the country. Recruiting drives for overseas workers have been failures. Rural offices have lowered entry requirements, but this hasn’t improved staff shortages and worker retention.

    The court system is bizarre, and leads to a range of perverse incentives. Lawyers are paid per appearance, and therefore have a financial incentive to dispute matter endlessly. Changing legal aid funding arrangements would, in one fell swoop, significantly diminish the amount of pointless work done by DHS. Furthermore, some of the magistrates have the idea that the court should be as non-adversarial as possible. This makes some sense in the Family law court, for instance, but it’s reckless and idiotic for magistrates to be seeking bargains and compromises with parents who have been demonstrated to pose a risk to their kids.

    ‘Early intervention’ and diversionary policies simply involve child protection reports being referred to NGOs rather than the Department proper, so essentially you have a shadow system of child protection beyond the official one. Naturally, the NGOs are themselves stretched to the point whereby the services they can offer are minimal.
    Other relevant services separate to DHS, but relevant to child protection, like police and mental health, also tend to be very tight on ‘gatekeeping’.

    There are broader societal issues at play, and overall, the ongoing failures to protect children reflect a failure of the community, and not merely a few bureaucrats.

    Nonetheless, the heart of the system is corrupt and rotten to the core, with media image and statistics being prioritised over the safety of children and welfare of workers. A system that treats its employees with utter contempt is hardly likely to be helpful to abused children.

  17. Liam

    the ongoing failures to protect children reflect a failure of the community

    That was the major finding of the judicial inquiry we had in NSW in 2008, THR.

  18. conrad

    “That was the major finding of the judicial inquiry we had in NSW in 2008, THR”

    It’s also just one of the reasons why it’s an essentially impossible problem.

  19. conrad

    “Just because there is no “perfect” solution doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try to do better than we currently do.”

    I don’t disagree, but it shows you the futility of running inquiry after inquiry looking at the part of the system that is basically cleaning up the mess caused by other things. You would be better off saving the money and sticking it where it might be useful. It reminds me of essentially parallel debates that blame teachers for the woes of the education system (and everything else in general), nurses/doctors for the woes of the hospital system, and, for that matter, many other front line employees and their direct managers for the woes of their particular industry. DOCS is an especially good example of it.

    Here’s an alternative way to think about. Let’s say that in the best case, if we fixed all the things that could be at this end of the equation, then how much more efficiently would everything be done? Let’s say we got a 20% increase in real results related to protecting children. That would be huge, but no doubt entirely insignificant compared to the number of cases caused by homelessness, metnal health, poverty, poor education etc .

  20. akn

    A perspective derived from working in the belly of the beast … and I’d agree with many of the critical comments above … is that we need a root and branch reform of mental health services Australia wide which would avert massive numbers of children falling into risk of harm subsequent to undiagnosed, unmedicated, untreated and unmanaged mental illness for which many currently self medicate, in order to numb the suffering, with the usual mad mixture of substances.