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5 minute read

Understaffed and under pressure

Child protection workers take a stand

In 2015, Hon Margaret Nyland AM was appointed Royal Commissioner by then Premier Jay Weatherill. Her task was to examine the effectiveness of the state’s child protection system in keeping children safe from harm, especially those children who had been removed from their families and placed into the custody and/or the guardianship of the then Minister for Education and Child Development.

Commissioner Nyland’s report, “The life they deserve”, was tabled in August 2016 and provided 260 recommendations on how to improve a system seen by many to be failing in a number of critical areas.

In its submission to the Royal Commission, the PSA outlined in detail its serious concerns about understaffing across the directorate then known as Families SA.

“PSA members have been at breaking point for some time due to the lack of resources and they have faced unrealistic and demanding workloads,” PSA General Secretary Nev Kitchin said at the time.

Back to the future

Five years and much restructuring later, PSA members working in Residential Care are wondering if key royal commission recommendations relating to staffing will ever be implemented. It’s a situation that has reached crisis point in recent months as Senior Youth Workers struggle under the weight of excessive and forced overtime.

Between late September and early November 2020 there were 337.5 shifts the Department covered in the Southern Region using overtime and another 150 shifts went uncovered.

Some full-time staff are clocking up an extra twenty hours overtime every week to cover the unallocated shifts.

On nine occasions during this period, Senior Youth Workers were forced by management to work overtime shifts – night shifts following an eight-hour afternoon shift – in order to cover the staffing shortfall. Poor workforce planning and cuts to early intervention programs have contributed to a sharp increase in children and young people entering state care and, yet again, PSA members are being expected to carry an extraordinary workload burden.

PSA Assistant General Secretary Natasha Brown says the state government must act now to rectify the staffing shortage before there is a tragedy.

“The government is cutting early intervention programs and failing to provide resources where they are needed. By our calculations, at least 60 full-time staff need to be recruited immediately. That’s how dire the situation is in residential care.”

One Senior Youth Worker told the Public Sector Review that the under-staffing of Residential Care is an accident waiting to happen.

“I believe it’s only a matter of time before a Senior Youth Worker who has been required to stay and cover a night shift or has responded to an issue or incident on very little sleep makes a poor judgement call that results in a devastating outcome,” they said.

I’ve been working for the Department for Child Protection for over a decade and have never felt as stressed as I am at the moment. 

Dispute lodged

Over the last two years the PSA has consistently raised the issue with Department for Child Protection (DCP) in meetings and consultative forums, to no avail. As a result, the PSA lodged a dispute with the DCP in the South Australian Employment Tribunal (SAET) on October 19, 2020 about the issue of forced and excessive overtime.

But after three SAET hearings, the issue remains unresolved, largely due to the Department’s refusal to implement SAET recommendations and its preference for bandaid solutions, such as increased use of agency staff to fill the rostering gaps.

DCP’s proposals to increase the use of under-qualified and inexperienced agency staff to cover vacant shifts is unacceptable. It completely disregards Recommendation 128 of the Nyland Royal Commission to phase out the use of commercial carers “except in the case of genuine short-term emergencies”. No-one could conceivably define this staffing crisis as “short-term”.

Extra stress leading to burnout

Children who enter care usually have a history of abuse and neglect and are more likely to suffer emotional and behavioural difficulties.

Residential Care workers are trained to manage these challenging behavioural and psychological issues, but the increase in children as young as infants entering residential care has added to the complexity of the role, significantly increasing pressure on staff.

Many staff are reporting increased levels of stress, anxiety and burnout. The excessive overtime along with the constant struggle to find staff to cover vacant shifts is taking its toll.

“I’ve been working for DCP for over a decade and have never felt as stressed as I am at the moment. The expectations and the uncertainty around whether shifts will be covered or not is completely unreasonable. I’m always worried before my afternoon shifts that I will be forced to work overnight as well due to lack of shift cover,” said one Senior Youth Worker.

During the recent Christmas period, between December 24 and January 1, 189 shifts across Residential Care were vacant. This means staff on those shifts were working in the house on their own.

The Nyland Royal Commission recommended strongly against singlehanded shifts in residential care for a wide range of reasons, not the least being the safety of the child which the report identifies as paramount: What’s the solution?

Recommendation 150

Recruit a sufficient complement of staff to:

A) cease using commercial carers in residential care facilities;

B) develop a casual list to provide staff who are available on a flexible basis; and

C) abandon single-handed shifts.

Impact on children

When residential care facilities are understaffed or staff are fatigued, children are adversely affected and put at risk.

“Last time I worked a night shift I had to walk continuously around the house to keep myself awake. The mobile night team were supportive but could not send anyone to relieve me. I do not consider this a safe situation for me or the young people in my care to be placed in,” a Senior Youth Worker told the Review.

With many staff experiencing extreme fatigue due to excessive overtime, including unplanned double-shifts, the potential for harm to both themselves and the young people in their care is significantly increased.

Last time I worked a night shift I had to walk continuously around the house to keep myself awake.

What's the solution?

This crisis hasn’t appeared out of the blue. The PSA has been continually raising the under-resourcing of Residential Care with Department for Child Protection leadership.

The state government has a duty of care to the children of South Australia, particularly those who are vulnerable and in state care.

Reunification programs and early intervention programs like the highly successful Financial Counselling program must be reinstated. Plans to cut and disperse the Aboriginal Family Scoping team (see next page) and Kanggarendi early intervention teams must be abandoned.

Crucially, resourcing must be provided immediately to recruit at least 60 more Residential Care staff to ensure vulnerable children and young people in state care are safe and afforded the opportunity to live “the life they deserve”.