FACS 'in crisis'

"WHEN people point an accusatory finger at DOCS about a child injured or killed it's important to know that we are supposed to have 2200 case workers statewide ... we have 1200. And when you take out those on maternity leave, holidays, sick leave or secondments, there are about 850 bums on seats."

These words, spoken by Ballina-based Family and Community Service (FACS, formerly DOCS) manager of case work Ray Wilton at last week's public service rally in Grafton, were just one of several revelations which point to a department in crisis.

Mr Wilton, who is the chair of the NSW Public Service Association's FACS committee, said his department trained 500 new case workers every year to replace the ones that had left.

He said the startling turnover rate was being compounded by a high case load and the amount of data entry and documentation required by case workers - a job previously done by administrative staff who had been cut.

"We've gone from 14% face-to-face work with clients to just 6% in three years," Mr Wilton said.

"It really goes to making the case that you can have the best accountability system in the world and still throw the baby out with the bath water."

Mr Wilton, who recently spent two months in the FACS Grafton office as a fill-in manager, said cases had to be prioritised and sometimes only the most serious of abuses were dealt with because of the excessive workload.

"The ones that aren't as serious are still important ... God only knows what happens to those children," he said.

Mr Wilton admitted sometimes there had to be numerous reports of suspected child abuse before a case could be looked at.

He said the case of two-year-old Tanilla Warrick-Deaves, who died on the Central Coast recently of multiple injuries after the family had been reported 30 times to DOCS, should be a wake-up call for the State Government to properly resource the department.

"If you talk to school principals in the Clarence Valley, many have had a gutful of making reports out of concern for kids only to have nothing happen," he said. "Some have threatened to go to the media over the issues.

"It can be expected that they will adapt to the new landscape and say, for example, 'unless it's serious stuff, we won't report it'."

The Examiner contacted one primary school principal over the issue and though he refused to comment publicly, said even more red tape had been created by the Child Wellbeing Unit which duplicated and slowed down the role of DOCS.

Mr Wilton said the Grafton office, which had about 20 case workers across various programs, was doing a tremendous job with the resources it had.

"They are bloody hard workers who work a lot more time than what they're being paid for - now the government is saying 'You can take a pay cut'," he said.

Mr Wilton referred to a NSW upper house inquiry in 2002 which found that DOCS required 2200 case workers in order to care for the state's "at risk" children properly and with the aid of $1.2 billion funding over five years starting in 2004, this was achieved.

But, he said, there had been a rapid drop in staffing levels in the past three years, accelerating in the past six months.

Mr Wilton also told The Examiner about the unfair distribution process of funding for the children "out of home care program" which housed 17,500 children across the state - 15,000 in state care and 2500 in the private sector, mostly with church groups.

The total budget for the program was $680 million, he said, and was distributed as follows: 46% to the private sector and 56% to state care.

In other words, state-run child housing (including kinship, foster care and full-time care) received 54% of the state's budget to take care of 85% of the state's at-risk, orphaned or displaced children.

In contradiction of Mr Wilton's figures, a FACS spokesperson said yesterday that Community Services had around 2100 caseworkers employed (at June 2011), from a target of 2200 and of these, 340.4 caseworkers were employed in the Northern Region.

But Mr Wilton backed his claims of only 1210 case workers saying they were quoted directly from the department's Quarterly Business Review, April to June 2011.

He said the figure for Northern NSW was 207 caseworkers - 133 less than the department's official figure.

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