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Children in care looked after in govt offices amid staff shortages: union

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UPDATED: Children in state care are being looked after in government offices instead of at purpose-built residential care homes due to ongoing staffing shortages within the Child Protection Department, the public sector union claims.

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According to the Public Service Association, one social worker was recently forced to write a court report with a baby on her lap because there was no other qualified carer available to look after the child.

The union, which represents Department for Child Protection staff, claims at one of the Department’s northern metropolitan offices, ten social workers worked a combined total of 220 hours overtime over two weeks to take care of children who should have been in residential care.

The PSA claims up to 20 children have been cared for at about nine different metropolitan offices over the past few months.

It follows union concerns last month that staffing in state-run residential care homes had reached a “crisis point”, with 150 shifts left uncovered by the Department over a six-week period.

The issue is currently before the SA Employment Tribunal.

In an message to members earlier this week, the PSA wrote that social workers and support staff working in department offices had been asked to develop rosters to care for children in offices during working hours and at residential care homes after-hours “due to a lack of available carers”.

“This is proving extremely difficult, resulting in fatigue and stress,” the message states.

“Members are also feeling manipulated through guilt into participating in these rosters, despite the detrimental affect it is having on their health and wellbeing.

“The expectation of providing care teams for these vulnerable young people is inappropriate, and places our members at risk of care concerns due to no fault of their own.”

PSA assistant general secretary Natasha Brown told InDaily that social workers often had full caseloads and they are unable to properly care for children in their office.

“It’s not safe for anyone,” she said.

“Other social workers are telling us they can’t support their clients because they’re being deployed to care for children in residential care houses.

“The fact they aren’t trained to carry out this work seems lost on the Department.”

Brown said the State Government had been made aware of the “growing shortage” of residential care staff for two years and the Department was “taking a huge gamble on the safety of children and their staff by not acting”.

“An immediate and effective recruitment drive to must be prioritised to fix the staffing shortage once and for all,” she said.

“Failure to address this now will be an act of gross negligence on behalf of both DCP management and the Minister.”

The PSA said it had written to the Department’s chief executive, Cathy Taylor, calling for the “harmful practice to cease urgently and for the appropriate measures to be put in place to look after the increasing numbers of children entering care”, but was yet to receive a response.

The union last month called for the Department to hire at least 60 more full-time staff and said after three hearings in the Employment Tribunal the issue was still unresolved.

But the Department’s deputy chief executive Fiona Ward told InDaily at the time that the Government had recruited and retained more residential care staff over the last two years than ever before.

Ward reiterated the claim in a statement to InDaily this afternoon.

She said 41 new residential care staff had recently been hired by the Department.

“We rely on all of our staff to ensure that children are well cared for and when staff are required to work after business hours, staff are renumerated accordingly,” she said.

“At any point in time there may be a small number of children being cared for by non-residential care staff after they have entered care, to enable opportunity to scope for placement with extended family, foster care or non-family based care.

“DCP is fortunate to have dedicated and committed staff who are focused on ensuring care for the most vulnerable children and young people in the state.”

SA’s Guardian for Children and Young People, Penny Wright, declined to comment.

Latest data released by the Department shows in December last year there were 543 children in residential care in SA.

The number of children in residential care in SA has steadily increased in line with an increase in the number of children entering care.

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