‘Crisis driven’: how SA handicapped its child protection staff

By David Donaldson

Tuesday August 9, 2016

The report of the royal commission into South Australia’s child protection regime has described a failing system in a state of permanent crisis, pointing to red tape and an undervaluing of professionalism, high turnover and inadequate resources for prevention, early intervention or staff training.

The system is “overwhelmed by the volume and complexity of work … in many cases the response comes so late that there is little choice to do anything other than to remove the child from their family,” says the landmark report by royal commissioner Margaret Nyland, released Monday.

“Under-investment over many years has hindered much service provision. Efforts to grapple with increasingly complex problems with increasingly limited resources have not worked,” the report reads.

The two year SA Child Protection Systems Royal Commission followed the discovery that Shannon McCoole, an employee of child protection agency Families SA, had sexually abused children and that the system had failed to pick up on a long list of red flags. The head of Families SA, David Waterford, resigned after the revelation in 2014.

Although McCoole sparked off the inquiry, “the problems besetting Families SA and the child protection system proved to be far greater than anyone had initially envisaged,” Nyland said.

The inquiry is blistering about the management of the agency. Morale was “the lowest it had been for many years”, with high turnover and micromanagement of frontline staff:

“There was a sense that professionalism and knowledge were not valued in the organisation. Efficient and effective case management was being thwarted by the tight holding of operational decision making within a small group of managers and executives who were distanced from the workers in the field and from the children about whom the decisions were being made. The capacity of front-line workers did not appear to be trusted and a culture of micromanagement was undermining the development of professional skill. The operational orientation of senior staff, including executives, was inhibiting the agency’s capacity to engage in strategic thinking and planning in the medium and long term.”

The structure of the child protection system has not kept pace as our understanding of child maltreatment has grown in recent years, Nyland’s report argues. There has not been enough of a focus on incorporating emerging evidence bases into practice, nor sufficient investment in growing the knowledge base of the workforce tasked with managing this complex work. Recruitment strategies “are crisis driven”.

Nyland says frontline staff are already burdened with a large number of policies “accumulated over time without being rationalised”. She does not see increased regulation as the key to improvement, but a strengthening of workforce capability:

“The gap between the complexity of the task, and the resources and skills of the agency required to manage it, has been filled with innumerable policies and processes in an attempt to bring structure and certainty to the work. However, this array of ‘guidance’ has made little impact on the quality of the work. One of the most striking observations made by the commission is the yawning gap between policy requirements and day-to-day practice in many areas.

“The temptation to impose additional layers of policy and process to achieve sustainable change should be resisted. System change does not come from imposing more regulation on how the work is to be done; it comes from a greater investment in growing the knowledge base of workers, both at a planning and service delivery level.”

Restoration started with a MoG

In June it was announced Families SA would be taken out of the Department of Education and Child Development, following a recommendation by Nyland. “The substantial reform needed for the child protection system was considered unattainable if Families SA continued to be part of the larger Department for Education and Child Development. The agency needed to make a fresh start,” the report argues.

Nyland called for increased transparency about how the system works. She endorsed the recommendation of the 2003 Layton child protection inquiry to create a Children’s Commissioner. Despite the passage of 13 years and bipartisan support for the creation of such a position, there is not yet agreement on the precise model and powers of the office.

An initial $200 million over the forward estimates has been committed to commence implementing the commission’s wide-ranging recommendations. A formal, detailed response to the royal commission will be presented before the end of this year.

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