Child Protection Workers

In Parliament, Motions

Adjourned debate on motion of Hon. C. Bonaros:

That this council—

1. Recognises that child protection workers dedicate their careers to caring for our state’s most vulnerable people;

2. Acknowledges that the safety of these children and young people is of paramount consideration but, to provide safe environments, child protection workers must also be safe;

3. Notes the key recommendation from the Nyland royal commission which recognised the substantial risk associated with staff working in single-handed shifts and recommended that single-handed shifts be abandoned; and

4. Calls on the government to abandon single-handed shifts to increase the safety of children in care and to improve safety for child protection workers.

(Continued from 17 October 2018.)

The Hon. I. PNEVMATIKOS (18:06): I rise to support the motion moved by the Hon. Connie Bonaros. There are few things more important than protecting children in our society, particularly from any form of neglect and abuse. Sadly, far too many South Australian children and young people need to be removed from their families each year for this reason, sometimes for a short time and sometimes more permanently.

The latest Department for Child Protection figures show that on 30 September this year there were 3,729 children aged 17 or under in state care; 427 of those children are in residential care and another 74 are housed in community care. For those who might not be familiar with the different forms of care, residential care is provided by the Department for Child Protection in a residential building or home, usually owned by the department or an NGO. Residential care workers are provided by the Department for Child Protection and funded non-government organisations.

Commercial care is provided at any suitable commercial premises, such as a private rental house or unit, and is staffed by carers from approved agencies who work shifts on a rotating 24-hour, seven days a week roster. The use of commercial care reduced under the former Labor government, and we hope to see this form of care further decline. It is not a preferred method of care, but in particular cases it is the most appropriate arrangement.

We on this side call on the Liberal government to meet the election commitment made by the now Minister for Child Protection, the member for Adelaide, to abandon single-handed shifts and ensure child protection workers only work in double-handed shifts. Child protection workers have an expectation that the Liberal government will introduce double-handed shifts, also known as 2UP, at all residential care facilities. Why do we have that expectation? Because the Liberals told them that is what they would deliver.

At the Public Service Association’s child protection election forum about a fortnight before polling day, the then spokeswoman for child protection, the member for Adelaide, and now minister Rachel Sanderson, spoke as part of a panel of parliamentarians. At that forum, workers recall that she committed that a Liberal government would implement recommendation 150c of the Child Protection Systems Royal Commission Report, known as the Nyland report. That recommendation calls for the recruitment of a sufficient complement of residential care staff in order to abandon single-handed shifts. You know that workers at that forum believed what they were being told: that the Liberals would implement the recommendation and recruit enough staff so that the state’s 76 residential care facilities would have two workers on a shift at all times.

No doubt, many of the workers at that forum voted Liberal at the last election in the expectation that this promise would be delivered in government. Child protection workers more broadly held, and continue to hold, an expectation that this Liberal government intends to implement this recommendation. We hear so much about how this government will deliver on all its promises, yet this is a promise that it now seems to be walking away from.

Under questioning in estimates hearings in the other place, the now Minister for Child Protection was vague and non-committal about the government’s intention to implement double-handed shifts at all residential care facilities now that it has been elected. Maybe this is a bit like the right-hand turn promise for the trams. In opposition, the Liberals promised many things, regardless of any proper assessment. Now they have the chance to deliver these promises and this government has been found wanting. Maybe this government has changed its mind about double-handed shifts. If that is the case, it owes the hardworking child protection workforce an explanation.

Why was this policy good enough to promise in opposition but not good enough to deliver in government? Questions on notice in the other place have revealed there are now six premises that have two or more staff on every shift, while another 36 premises sometimes have more than two staff on a shift. Meanwhile, 34 premises only ever have one staff member per shift. The government needs to make good on its election promise and now fully implement it across all 76 residential care facilities.

In government, Labor supported and implemented other recommendations made by commissioner Nyland to ensure an appropriate workforce in the child protection system. Labor supported recommendation 132, which called for the abandonment of single-handed shifts for commercial carers engaged through commercial agencies. The then government responded immediately by delivering two intensive placement support teams, which resulted in the recruitment of 18 full-time equivalent positions at a cost of $1.8 million per year. That started in the 2017-18 financial year and has now been fully implemented.

Recommendations 150a and 150b called for enough residential care workers to be recruited so as to cease using commercial carers in residential care facilities and the development of a casual list to provide staff who are available on a flexible basis. Both of these measures were also delivered. This new government must continue the good work of the previous government in implementing the recommendations of the Nyland royal commission.

The motion also recognises the dedication of child protection workers and the need for them to be safe in their own workplaces in order to properly care for children. We on this side are so very grateful for the dedication and commitment of hundreds of child protection workers, whether they work for the department, non-government organisations or agencies. These carers do so much to support children and young people who are in great need of loving care.

These workers make a difference every day to the health, welfare, safety and security of children and we should be doing what we can to support them. To all those who dedicate their lives to improving the lives of our state’s most vulnerable kids, we thank you. We thank you and we will hold this government to account for their promises to you. This government must live up to its promises, wherever and whenever these promises were made. The Liberal government promised to abandon single-handed shifts and now they must deliver on that promise.

The Hon. J.M.A. LENSINK (Minister for Human Services) (18:13): I rise to make some remarks in support of this motion and thank the honourable member for bringing this important matter to the attention of the Legislative Council. The government is committed to protecting children and young people and all those workers and volunteers, carers and families who support children under guardianship. The government is committed to ensuring that the staffing of residential care is tailored to the critically assessed needs of children.

We have been engaged in the national conversation throughout the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse, which seeks to improve the safety of children and young people in institutional settings. Alongside all child protection jurisdictions in Australia, the Department for Child Protection will be considering how the recommendations from the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse are to be implemented.

Considerable work is being undertaken to consider the intersection of the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse, Nyland and Oakden reports and their implications for South Australian children in child protection. In particular, the department will be considering how to implement the National Principles for Child Safe Organisations, which seek to create a culture, adopt strategies and take action to promote child wellbeing and prevent harm to children and young people. The Nyland report from 2016 provided two recommendations to abandon single-handed shifts. Recommendation 132 in commercial care was, and I quote:

Forthwith abandon single-handed shifts by commercial carers engaged through commercial agencies.

This recommendation was accepted by the previous government for implementation in phase 3, which was due to commence from January 2019 to January 2022. The other recommendation was recommendation 150c in residential care, which was, and I quote:

Recruit a sufficient complement of staff to…

c abandon single-handed shifts.

This was not previously supported by the previous government. This government has already undertaken significant changes to the child protection systems which impact the security, safety and wellbeing of children under guardianship. The number of children and young people in commercial care has been reduced. It was standing at 190 in March 2017. By April 2018 it was 102. By 30 September it had reduced to 74.

The percentage of children and young people in family-based care as a percentage of all out-of-home care has also been increased. From 30 June 2017 it stood at 83 per cent. By 30 September 2018 it had increased to 85.33 per cent. This government is taking the opportunity to further consider the Nyland recommendations, particularly those that were not accepted to ensure that it reflects our new priorities. There are number of ways in which children and staff are kept safe:

double shifts are occurring for children and young people in commercial and residential care where it has been clinically assessed that their needs require double shift care;

an easily searchable electronic observation logging system to increase safety for children and workers and oversight in placements in residential care;

safeguarding practice guidance and the mandatory procedure alongside a comprehensive training package for residential care staff is in progress and continues;

unannounced visits undertaken by managers and the mobile night team occur in residential care, and unannounced visits by the intensive placement support team occur in commercial care;

staff are further supported by senior youth workers, supervisors and mobile response teams. Some facilities are located within close proximity to other locations, providing additional support;

a complaints unit has been established within the department’s office of the chief executive, which can hear complaints from young people in care;

section 110A of the act provides for psychometric assessment of all workers in government and non-government residential care services. All DCP staff working with children and young people in residential have now undergone a psychometric assessment; and

the yet to commence Child Safety (Prohibited Persons) Act 2016 will strengthen background child-related employment screening to safeguard children and young people once regulations have been endorsed.

I have a suggested amendment to the motion to recognise this. I would like to echo the comments of the Hon. Irene Pnevmatikos in terms of thanking everybody who works in this very important area in child protection and particularly the workforce. I do understand that recruitment of staff into the child protection system continues to be a challenge. We would dearly love to have more people involved in such an important role for some of our most vulnerable children. I move the amendment to the motion standing in my name, as follows:

Leave out paragraph 4, and insert new paragraph as follows:

4. Recognises the work the government has recently implemented to increase the safety of children in care and to improve safety for child protection workers, namely:

(a) double shifts are occurring for children and young people in commercial and residential care where it has been clinically assessed that their needs require double shift care;

(b) an easily searchable electronic observation logging system to increase safety for children and workers and oversight in placements in residential care; and

(c) unannounced visits undertaken by manager and the mobile night team occur in residential care, and unannounced visits by the intensive placement support (IPS) team occur in commercial care.

The Hon. T.A. FRANKS (18:19): I rise to speak briefly in support of this commendable motion in support of the 2Up On Shift campaign being run by the PSA. The Greens are proud to support both this motion and the campaign and of course to support child protection workers in their campaign to protect children in care as well as those who look after them.

Child protection workers are incredibly dedicated. They spend their careers looking after some of the most vulnerable people in our state. There are few people more dedicated to the safety of children and to providing those safe environments for children. But these people deserve to feel safe in their workplace too, and it is the government’s responsibility to look after both the workers and, of course, the children in care.

Child protection workers are currently on a 24/7 roster with eight-hour shifts and woefully inadequate handover periods, sometimes of just 10 minutes. It is not uncommon for workers to be scheduled onto a shift on their own, and this is just not good enough. We know that there are unacceptable risks for children that are being cared for by commercial care workers on single shifts, and these risks are substantial.

As has been strongly recommended by the Nyland report, carers employed through commercial agencies should be restricted to shifts with two workers at any one time. The fact that this continues to be a practice is deeply concerning. It is not just dangerous for children; it is dangerous for workers as well. We all know that a major challenge that child protection workers face is resourcing, and a key part of that is that there are not appropriate numbers of staff for the work that they do.

The best and only way to ensure that staff and children in care are safe is by having a minimum of two staff on shift at any given time. Staff do their best to build a strong, safe and positive relationship with young people, but this is difficult when there is a lack of consistency and numbers of staff. Child protection workers get moved around to fill gaps at other locations, often leaving these young people in our care with a single staff member. Less experienced staff then get put in positions where they just do not have the experience to manage the more complex situations, while senior staff are tied up at high-risk locations, leaving less support staff in other areas.

All of this means that children in care and the staff looking after them are often left in some unsafe situations. Children in care and the staff who look after them deserve better. They deserve to be safe. There is no other way to make sure that no harm will come to anyone without there being a second person there at all times. It is the best way forward in this situation.

It is beyond time for the government to take up recommendation 150c of the Nyland report, and I say that noting that the opposition has a burden to bear there as well. To immediately abandon single-handed shifts is what is required. It has been some time since the Nyland royal commission, yet still nothing—or little—has been done in regard to the number of people on shift at one time. This means that both the children in care and the child protection workers are still at risk. I thank the Hon. Connie Bonaros for putting this motion forward. The Greens are proud to support this campaign and this motion. We hope that the rest of the chamber will too.

With regard to the government amendment, it is unacceptable to the Greens that it leaves out paragraph 4 and inserts a new paragraph instead. If the government were to choose not to just leave out paragraph 4, which I note calls on the government to immediately abandon the single-handed shifts, then perhaps we might see our way to supporting the amendment, but as it stands, whether it is an either/or situation, we will not abandon our call to support double-handed shifts and, sadly, this motion and the amendment the government puts to this motion is not enacted by the proposed amendment from the government.

If the government wishes to rephrase and provide an addition, then that would be a way forward, but at this stage the Greens will not be supporting the government amendment but we proudly support the SA-Best motion.

The Hon. C. BONAROS (18:23): Can I start by thanking the Hon. Irene Pnevmatikos; the Minister for Human Services, the Hon. Michelle Lensink; and the Hon. Tammy Franks for their contribution on this incredibly important motion. I would also like to acknowledge the following members from the Public Service Association of SA here today: Mr Alan Benger, who has led the campaign on this issue, along with Mr David Platt, Mr Manuel Andia, Mr Michael Jessop and Tamara Maddison. I would also like to acknowledge Ms Janet Giles, who I understand is watching from home today, for her advocacy on this most important issue. Thank you all.

I note that the government has circulated the amendment that has been moved by the minister, which details what is currently occurring in monitoring within residential and commercial care. I also note that unannounced visits undertaken by a manager and the mobile night team occur in residential care, and unannounced visits by the Intensive Support Placement (IPS) team occur in commercial care. These have predated the current Marshall government. That is outlined in that amendment.

Whilst the measures outlined in the amendment circulated by the government are commendable, I think the Hon. Tammy Franks hit the nail on the head: anything short of the full implementation of the recommendations by commissioner Nyland with respect to the cessation of single-handed shifts is simply not acceptable. Whist I again acknowledge the steps already taken by the government in this space, I allude again to the ‘The life they deserve’ report, where commissioner Nyland stated that rotational care, where children are cared for by adults who are employees and work on a shift basis:

…is developmentally inappropriate for most children and is a poor substitute for the care provided in a loving family home.


The risks of sexual abuse in rotational care have been well known by the Agency for many years.

Commissioner Nyland went on to report that:

Children in institutional care are especially vulnerable to sexual abuse, and if they are to stay safe, this risk must be addressed. Children and infants who are too young to understand what is happening to them, or for whatever reason are unable to complain, rely on the presence of consistent and attentive caregivers who understand when they feel secure and well, and when they do not. There are difficulties in providing this security in a rotational care environment.

I do not in any way want to diminish the invaluable work of child protection workers—as has been highlighted by the Hon. Irene Pnevmatikos, by the Minister for Human Services and by the Hon. Tammy Franks—for all that they do in this space. However, I have to highlight that every child deserves the same level of care and protection.

As mentioned by the Hon. Irene Pnevmatikos, as of August this year, there were 3,710 children in out-of-home care in South Australia; 429 were in residential care. We need to look at different ways of doing things because the status quo is clearly not working for our kids.

When I spoke to this motion in October, I noted the New South Wales government’s announcement that it would pay specialised foster carers $75,000 a year to temporarily look after children with complex needs. That program was to be delivered by a not-for-profit company, OzChild, which would be funded for two years.

A week after I spoke, the Marshall government undertook to look into the New South Wales announcement. I commend them for their interest in that scheme, but we know that children in foster care consistently show better experiences and outcomes than children in residential care. Children should not be raised in facilities, but in homes; however, until there is a paradigm shift in this space, single-handed shifts by residential care workers should be abandoned as a priority.

Whilst I also agree with what the Hon. Tammy Franks said—that is, if that motion were to be amended to include but not leave out paragraph 4—that is something we would consider. We know all too well that things can go horribly wrong, and they have gone horribly wrong in the past, when children and child protection workers are placed at unacceptable risk. For those reasons, SA-Best will not support the amendment to the motion in its current form, but we commend the unamended motion to this chamber.

Amendment negatived; motion carried.

Sitting extended beyond 18:30 on motion of Hon. R.I. Lucas.