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Issue #1602      July 17, 2013

Criminal neglect of children

News of the death of a two-year-old Tanilla Opal Warrick-Deaves in NSW last week was a grim reminder of a system in crisis. Relatives of the young girl say they made 33 reports to the Department of Family and Community Services* (FACS) raising serious concerns about her welfare. At least one neighbour is reported as contacting the police. The only call that was responded to was to triple-O when it was too late to save the young life. Tanilla is not an isolated case. There is a long-running tragic saga of neglect of the most vulnerable in our society – our children. The system is failing our children.

According to the NSW government’s own statistics, 61,308 children and young people were reported as being at risk in the year 2011-12. But only 16,409 were interviewed by a caseworker and given a safety check. That means 44,899 children – almost 75 percent of those deemed to be at risk – were not followed up that year.

These appalling statistics are not just numbers. They are children whose welfare and safety, even lives, are in jeopardy.

Caseworkers are stretched to breaking point. There are too few to respond to calls, and they have too little time with each family. Staffing cuts have added additional pressures and it is not surprising that staff are suffering from stress and other health problems, and leaving the service.

In 2011-12, the equivalent of 117 full-time caseworker positions were abolished, with the funding for them transferred to the non-government/private sector, as part of a program to make child protection a “shared responsibility”.

A leaked internal treasury memo showed the NSW state government has plans to cut nearly 1,000 jobs from the Department of Family and Community Services over four years.

Steve Turner, NSW Assistant Secretary of the Public Service Association (PSA) which represents community service workers, said the O’Farrell government’s slashing of community services staff is placing vulnerable children and families at risk across NSW. The government is failing in its duty of care to thousands of the most at risk children and their families in our community.

“Staff find themselves overwhelmed by insufficient resources and a high administration burden that stops them from essential face-to-face work with vulnerable children and their families,” the PSA said.

The NSW budget papers reveal funding cuts of $16.4 million from $262 .2 million in 2012-13 to $245.8 million in 2013-14. Instead of increasing the budget allocation, the Minister Pru Goward is in denial that the spending has been cut; the government has just made a few “accounting changes”! The cuts, however, are very evident on the ground.

The Council of Social Service of NSW (CSS) criticised the cut in funding for early-intervention programs for families that provide drug and alcohol services, parenting skills and give mental health support. The CSS of NSW called for a $20 million funding increase for early intervention programs.

Even in cold economic terms – which is all that neo-liberal governments care about – it is a false economy. In the longer term it costs less if children are protected and families given the assistance they require.

Early this year the NSW Ombudsman confirmed staff concerns about a lack of resources compromising outcomes for children at risk. His report showed there were too many serious cases with not enough caseworkers and support staff to respond.

Pru Goward refuses to increase funding or even acknowledge the freeze or need for more funding.

It is an indictment of a system in which governments can find millions of dollars to subsidise the corporate sector but cannot find enough money to give children and their families the support they need.

It requires more than increased funding for staff and resources to carry out early intervention work and respond to crises. Chid protection workers cannot do it alone, even with enough staff and resources to attend to all calls.

The causes behind family breakdown, behind neglect, abuse and violence towards children or partner need to be addressed. They are many and varied, but some of the most common threads include poverty, unemployment, mental illness, family breakdown and drug and alcohol abuse, or a parent having been subjected to abuse or not had any opportunity in their own childhood.

Families on welfare payments, such as single parents and the unemployed are under enormous stress, as are low income working parents. Casualisation has created additional pressures resulting in lack of income security, family unfriendly work hours and no predictability of working hours. Social security payments must be raised.

The high cost of childcare compounds the problems of low income parents. Early childhood education is also important but out of reach for many. Job security and higher wages are a vital part of the equation.

Housing is another problem. How can parents on the minimum wage keep a roof over their family’s heads when rental eats up more than half their income? Part of the solution lies in increasing the provision of public housing and rental controls in the private market.

It should not be left to church and other charities to put food on tables, provide clothing and attempt to find shelter for families or homeless children.

* FACS was previously known as DOCS – Department of Community Services.   

Next article – Editorial – Indonesia strategic priority

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