North coast-based MP Jan Barham has called for the urgent increase of staff and funding for child protection in the wake of a damning report highlighting a severe lack of caseworkers to deal with at-risk children.
A spate of brutal deaths around the state of children who were repeatedly reported to be at risk has thrown the spotlight on the Department of Family and Community Services and its apparent failure to protect them.
One of those cases involve toddler Tanilla Warrick-Deaves, whose mother pleaded guilty on Tuesday to the manslaughter of the two-year-old. Tanilla’s distraught father, Adrian Casaran-Warrick, lives in Ballina.
Ms Barham, a former Byron Shire mayor, says identifying families where children are at risk and taking appropriate action, including early intervention services and assessment, must be urgent priorities.
The Greens MP’s comments follow the release of a Fairfax Media report which showed that almost three-quarters of children deemed at risk of significant harm in NSW will not see a caseworker to undergo safety checks.
The internal departmental documents obtained under freedom of information also reveals a departmental freeze on hiring new caseworkers to deal with the state’s most vulnerable children.
Figures show 61,308 children and young people were reported as being at risk between July 1, 2011 and June 30, 2012, yet only 16,409 were interviewed by a caseworker and given a safety check.
Ms Barham said she was concerned that the recent NSW Budget didn’t show ‘a funding commitment to prioritise the support for vulnerable children’.
‘Recent reports have highlighted that child protection caseworkers aren’t able to keep up with the number of reports received, and concerns have been raised about the time spent on paperwork rather than face-to-face visits and checks.
‘The budget only allocated a 2.8 per cent funding increase to statutory child protection and, even worse, funding for targeted early intervention to support vulnerable families has been cut by more than eight percent.
‘A government discussion paper on child protection, released last year, recognised the need for targeted action to prevent harm to children, including early intervention and parenting programs.’
Ms Barham noted that the foster-care system was already under strain, with more than 18,000 children currently in out-of-home care.
‘Foster carers play a vital role caring for the 18,000 children who are unable to live with their own families,’ she said.
‘But more support is needed to increase the number of carers.
‘The government must clarify the current situation with caseworkers and how reports of risk of significant harm are handled.
‘There also must be enough caseworkers so that reports of significant risk can be assessed, and early intervention and prevention services have to be expanded.
‘Children at risk must be the highest priority in NSW,’ Ms Barham said.
The report can be viewed at: http://www.smh.com.au/nsw/44899-children-unchecked-20130709-2pofc.html.
The Fairfax Media report says state government has refused repeated requests to provide a detailed breakdown of how many caseworkers it employs, with a spokesman for family and community services minister Pru Goward only saying there are ‘around 2,000’ employed at present.
Ms Barham also provided budget figures, which show that spending in Targeted Earlier Intervention dropped this year by 6.3 per cent from $262,220 in 2012–13 to $245,798 in 2013–14.