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'Significant misconduct': Foster carers accuse department staff

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South Australian child protection authorities have engaged in misconduct including forging foster carer signatures and threatening to remove carers’ biological children, a state government-commissioned inquiry has been told.

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In damning allegations, the state’s peak carer advocacy group Connecting Foster & Kinship Carers SA says some members feel threatened, bullied, harassed and intimidated by workers employed by the Department for Child Protection.

The group claims foster carers feel “powerless” as they have little or no recourse to complain when they experience alleged misconduct at the hands of the workers, whose job is to manage a child’s placement within the child protection system.

The allegations are outlined in the organisation’s lengthy submission to an independent foster carer inquiry commissioned by the state government last year.

The inquiry, led by prominent child protection academic Dr Fiona Arney, was set up to examine how South Australia could improve foster and kinship care, including procedures for dealing with complaints.

In any other organisation, if people were treated the way carers are, there would be action and outcry

In their submission sent to Arney yesterday afternoon, Connecting Foster & Kinship Carers SA CEO Fiona Endacott and chair Megan Hender wrote that some carers had reported experiencing “significant misconduct” at the hands of department and agency staff.

They said misconduct allegedly experienced by carers included but was not limited to:

Endacott and Hender wrote they were “confident the inquiry will receive a number of individual submissions attesting to these concerns”.

“Carers report feeling powerless in the face of these issues,” they wrote.

“They have little or no recourse when adverse decisions are made.

“When they have the courage to complain about misconduct, they feel they are dismissed and their complaints not addressed.”

The submission quotes several foster carers expressing concern about the behaviour of some workers employed by the department or its contracted agencies.

It is totally unacceptable. It must be stopped

One described the state’s child protection system as “broken” and in “disarray”.

“Broken people working with broken people makes for a lot of trauma,” they are quoted.

“Carers will keep leaving unless we are respected and valued for what we do – not by lip service, but by actions.

“In any other organisation, if people were treated the way carers are, there would be action and outcry.”

Another accused the department of being bullying and abusive, adding they didn’t feel supported by the agency contracted by the department to manage their foster child’s placement.

“Agencies are only concerned about their funding and pander too much to DCP (Department for Child Protection) and forget that their job is to support carers,” they are quoted.

The submission also raised concerns about staff interactions with foster carers’ biological children.

Endacott and Hender said they “can relate a number of instances where biological children have been distressed by the actions of DCP (the Department for Child Protection)”, including being threatened with removal themselves and having their foster siblings removed in their presence.

“It is totally unacceptable. It must be stopped,” they wrote.

In a statement to InDaily, the department’s deputy chief executive Fiona Ward said she valued the “incredible important contribution” that all South Australian carers make by providing a safe and nurturing family environment for children and young people.

She said the department “know the important of listening to our carers and are committed to working with them to continuously improve the way we work together to support children and young people”.

DCP has committed to ensuring appropriate support and advocacy is available for family-based carers,” she said.

“The department funds Connecting Foster and Kinship Carers SA, as the independent peak body for carers in South Australia. This funding ensures they are positioned to provide support and advocacy at both the individual and systemic level.”

Ward said the department had provided funding to support carers to make submissions to the inquiry.

“While it would be inappropriate to comment on a particular submission at this time, as part of our broader commitment to continuous improvement, we welcome the Independent Inquiry into Foster and Kinship care and await the findings,” she said. 

Controversial legislative changes rushed through the parliament last year mean the state’s Ombudsman can only investigate misconduct allegations if the behaviour is deemed both serious and intentional.

The stakes for carers (and we submit, for the children and young people in their care) are enormously high

Endacott and Hender wrote that the Ombudsman had “real limitations when it comes to addressing carer concerns” and that his recommendations were often not what an aggrieved carer was after.

They added that Connecting Foster & Kinship Carers SA is unable to make complaints to the Ombudsman as the group is not a “listed body” specified in legislation.

The organisation has called on the state government to establish an independent legislated complaint process “based on principles of natural justice and procedural fairness” to investigate problem behaviour experienced by foster and kinship carers.

They suggested the process could be based on the independent complaints mechanism for injured workers set out in the Return to Work Act.

“Carers open their families and their homes to children – and then live with the precarious knowledge that those children might be taken from them,” Endacott and Hender wrote.

“The stakes for carers (and we submit, for the children and young people in their care) are enormously high.

“The establishment of an independent complaints mechanism that supports and protects them, is a reflection and acknowledgment of the value society places on their work.”

Other recommendations suggested by the organisation included providing carers with free legal advice, improving consultation between child protection authorities and carers, increasing mental health support and extending parental leave to carers.

Arney has until June 8 to hand Child Protection Minister Katrine Hildyard a report summarising the findings of the inquiry.

Former Child Protection Minister Rachel Sanderson said in December that the aim of the inquiry was for South Australia to have “the world’s best child protection system”.

Latest data from the Child Protection Department shows on February 28, there were 4670 children in care.

Of those, the majority – 4000 – were placed in foster, kinship or family day care.

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