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Queensland’s child protection workers warn system still vulnerable to mistakes

Working on the frontline of Queensland’s child safety system, Nicole* remembers finishing some shifts by fetching her bag, climbing into her car, and dialling the number for Lifeline.

As a seasoned social worker, she thought she had a good grip on the complexities of life.

But then she began working in one of south-east Queensland’s most stretched child safety service centres.

“It was complete chaos,” said the former child safety officer, who left the department several years ago.

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“People were damaged.

“There was no time [for debriefs so] I would call Lifeline on the commute home.”

The ABC has spoken to more than half a dozen past and current child safety officers about their experiences in the embattled sector — as well as young adults raised in care.

Together, they paint a picture of a department plagued by high pressures and workloads, staff turnover, inexperienced officers and persisting concerns over training and pay.

Child Safety Minister Di Farmer has insisted that today’s department is a “very different agency” to the one that a coroner found failed to protect toddler Mason Jet Lee “in nearly every possible way” before his death in 2016.

More than $1.3 billion has been poured into child safety in the last financial year alone, while some 500 extra job positions have been funded since 2015, the department said. Its full statement can be read here.

But Together Union child safety delegate and current frontline officer Vishal Chandani said chronic issues at play when Mason died still trouble the system.

Together union child safety delegates Vishal Chandani and Lucy.
Together Union child safety delegates Vishal Chandani and Lucy (last name withheld).(ABC News: Kate McKenna)

“Some of those fundamental things that went wrong for Mason are still happening today, and they’re often saved because of luck, not because of stronger and better systems,” he said.

He said high, unrelenting workload pressures were leading to “lots of near-misses”.

“If you don’t have the time that you need to reflect, engage in professional supervision and really think these complex problems through … you’re going to make mistakes,” he said.

“The really sad thing is, not only do we make mistakes because of the high workload, we then don’t get the necessary time to reflect and improve our practices because we’re going to the next fire.”

For example, he has done home visits in the past with a new child safety officer where the family might be under an “intervention with parental agreement” order.

“You’ve turned up to the house, the mum said the baby’s asleep, so the child safety officer has sighted the child sleeping in the cot and then walked away,” he said.

“I’ve stepped in and gone, ‘well how do you know that child is actually safe?'”

“You could pull the covers up and see physical injuries.”

“These are all basic frontline skills that officers have but they’re making mistakes because of the really, really high workloads.

“I can think of at least half a dozen [times in five years], and I’m not talking children who have died, I’m talking times when significant abuse or neglect has occurred that could have been avoided if there were better systems and workloads were more manageable.”

Headshot of Queensland Labor state MP Di Farmer.
Child Safety Minister Di Farmer says an extra 500 staff have been funded since 2015.(Supplied: Queensland Government)

Another union child safety delegate, Lucy (last name withheld), found the switch from the disability services sector to child safety in late 2016 “shocking”.

“I think everyone is focused on the needs of the child … but we just don’t have the time to do it all,” she said.

“One of the common phrases I hear is, ‘if I don’t do that today is a child going to die? If a child isn’t going to die, then I can’t do it today.'”

On average, child safety staff stay with the department for five years, according to a department spokesperson.

But Mr Chandani said he frequently found himself the only frontline worker in a group of six with more than 12 months in the job.

“My experience is a lot of graduates come to child safety, then leave after a year or two to go work in the non-government sector because the conditions are better, the pay is better, and the workloads are less,” he said.

Belinda* sits on a couch, photo shot through blinds so her face cannot be seen.
Belinda* (not her real name) became anxious about her cases when not at work.(ABC News: Kate McKenna)

Belinda*, a former employee who asked to remain anonymous, joined the frontline in early 2015 and lasted about a year.

“Think of your worst nightmare and times that by 10,” she said.

She had wanted to make a “positive difference” to the lives of vulnerable children.

Instead, she said she was left feeling defeated by the high number of cases, exacerbated by a lack of resources and support.

“I would come home and carry that anxiety and stress of what would happen to that little person when I’m not there,” she said.

Despite being new to the sector, she said it was about two months before she received training and even then, her team leader expressed frustration that her cases weren’t “going to be attended to”.

A spokesman from the department said new recruits begin a training program immediately but can take up to a year to complete it.

Belinda said one specific case — involving a baby — left her feeling powerless.

“I had been saying that we need to protect this child, we need to remove [them] … as I feel they’re at so much risk,” she said.

“It got to the point that the police ended up attending to a different call in the community and saw the baby unattended, unsupervised, in complete distress in a house that wasn’t their own or known to the department.

“I felt like I was a puppet … and it was in total conflict with who I was as a person but also [as someone] new to child safety.”

That stress has been echoed by others.

Another ex-frontline child safety officer said one of her cases — a teenage girl — was taken to hospital after she attempted to take her own life at her residential care service.

But the worker said she was told she was not allowed to stay longer with the girl — who, she said, “had no-one else in the world” to visit her in hospital — because another child had to be picked up.

Mason Lee was found dead by paramedics
Mason Jet Lee was killed in 2016 by his stepfather, with the death leading to reforms in the department.(Facebook: Emmy Louise)

CREATE Foundation chief executive Jacqui Reed said frontline staff turnover has a significant impact on vulnerable children, some of whom are already highly traumatised.

“When they get a new worker, they have to tell their story all over again,” she said.

Caroline Fletcher experienced a cycle of child safety officers while being raised in kinship and foster care.

“You’d finally get comfortable with someone [a child safety officer] and they’d go away or move departments or they’d change teams,” she said.

At 16, she left foster care and had to move in with her boss as there was nowhere “to go for me with the department”, she said.

“There’s things about the foster system that has affected me and probably will affect me for the rest of my life,” she said.

“We feel like we’re the taboo of society.”

Caroline Fletcher wearing a yellow dress, sitting on a chair.
Caroline Fletcher, 20, was raised in kinship and foster care and has gone on to study criminal justice.(ABC News: Julie Hornsey)

Now studying human services and criminology/criminal justice at university, she hopes to pursue research around children and youth in care.

“I recognise that I can’t change anything that’s happened to me throughout the system but I want to be able to use my story and my impacts throughout care to change it,” she said.

Currently, there are more than 92,000 children known to Queensland’s child safety department, including 10,000 who have been placed in out-of-home care.

In 2018-19, 58 of the total 386 children who died were known to the department — including 14 from suicide and six from suspected or confirmed fatal assault or neglect — according to data from the Queensland Family and Child Commission.

This was an increase on 2017-18, where records show 48 of the 384 child deaths were of children known to the system, but similar to 2016-17, where of the 420 children who died that year, 58 were known to the system.

The department said there had been a rise in the “complexity” of families, with 65 per cent of children in care having a drug or alcohol problem, and 50 per cent being victims of domestic and family violence.

A spokesman said, each week, 18 children were taken into some form of departmental care as a result of methamphetamines”.

Child Wise managing director Natalie Siegel-Brown, who spent almost four years as Queensland’s Public Guardian, said: “we can’t keep putting fixes upon fixes without looking at the core” of the child protection system.

“We have undergone — in every state of this country — reform after reform after reform,” she said.

“Perhaps what we need instead of reform is a rethink.”

PeakCare executive director Lindsay Wegener stands in an outdoor garden in Boondall, Brisbane.
PeakCare executive director Lindsay Wegener said more needed to be spent on early intervention.(ABC News: Tim Swanston)

PeakCare executive director Lindsay Wegener agreed.

“It requires a big commitment, really a bipartisan agreement, to take the politics out of this to ensure child protection rises above the argy-bargy,” he said.

“[Queensland’s system] is incrementally improving, but while it takes some steps forward, it also takes some steps back at times and gets diverted.”

He said the amount the department invested in early intervention programs — about 10 per cent of the child and family services budget — was not enough.

“There will be children who do at times need to be removed from their family’s care, at least for a period of time, but really we should be aiming to shift that expenditure into much earlier support to prevent that happening in the first place,” he said.

Ms Siegel-Brown said the system should be about “recovering the human beings at the centre of it”.

“It’s the child’s trauma, it’s the parent’s trauma which has led to abuse and neglect — if we don’t make that the core of the system then workers are probably going to be stuck just responding to daily and nightly risk,” she said.

Child Wise managing director Natalie Siegel-Brown.
Child Wise managing director Natalie Siegel-Brown says there is generational trauma behind some cases.(ABC News: Kate McKenna)

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children make up 42.5 per cent of the total children in care.

Queensland Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Child Protection Peak CEO Garth Morgan said the ongoing overrepresentation despite significant government investment, signified a “catastrophic failure”.

“We need much stronger oversight and accountability for adhering to the child placement principles and significantly increased participation of Indigenous people in decisions that impact them,” he said.

Mick Gooda, who is co-chair of the Queensland First Children and Families Board, said there had been “some great results” with the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander community-run family wellbeing centres, including at Cherbourg, where self-referrals had risen by about 80 per cent.

“That means people are reaching out for assistance rather than waiting for some report to be made and then they’re confronted with a worker from the child safety system,” he said.

Children play in a field, a big willow tree stands in the foreground
Indigenous children are overrepresented in the system.(ABC News: Bridget Brennan)

The union’s child safety delegates said they also wanted caseloads to be capped, like in Western Australia, along with other measures like external professional supervision.

“We can’t do our jobs if we don’t have the time to do our jobs,” Lucy said.

Mr Chandani said: “everything is impacted by workloads”.

The department has not yet released the data on its performance in the December quarter, citing “an intense focus on helping families during a period of exceptional circumstances”, but a spokesman said the average number of cases an officer handles at a time is 18.

“My experience of the general messaging from senior leadership within the department is ‘don’t worry about it, everything’s already been fixed … you’re doing a great job and don’t comment publicly,” Mr Chandani said.

*Not their real name.


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