InDaily first reported on the staffing shortage at the Cavan-based Kurlana Tapa youth detention centre in 2020, with the state’s Training Centre Visitor warning that incarcerated children were being denied access to education, phone calls to lawyers and medical treatment due to a lack of workers.
In a report to state parliament in November, the Training Centre Visitor revealed an estimated 80 per cent of day shifts went understaffed at the centre at the start of 2022, with an average of nine out of 21 required workers not rostered on those 7am to 11pm shifts.
The Public Service Association (PSA), which represents workers at the centre, told InDaily the staffing shortage at Kurlana Tapa was still a “major concern”, with staff currently working large amounts of overtime and additional shifts to keep the site operational.
The union’s general secretary, Natasha Brown, said there was also “huge turnover” of staff due to poor training, insecure employment, threats to safety and poor morale.
“There are staff who have been in temporary supervisor roles working with people who have fewer than six months’ experience in the job and managers are regularly having to fill in for the vacancies,” she said.
“To date, staff have shown great goodwill on a daily basis attending their rostered shifts and doing extra shifts so the young people in their care can have time out of their rooms, but this can also place our members’ safety at risk.”
The Department of Human Services told InDaily today that while it had been successful in recruiting 40 youth workers and youth support workers over the past 12 months, it had lost 19 staff this year for “a variety of reasons”.
Kurlana Tapa was home to 292 children aged between 10 and 18 who received a custodial sentence in 2021-22.
They’re not doing much other than coming out of their rooms, eating food and going back in
Many of those children are Aboriginal, have disabilities, or are under the guardianship of the chief executive of the Department for Child Protection.
Training Centre Visitor Shona Reid, who is legislated to advocate for South Australian children in detention, told InDaily the government needed to address the “chronic staffing pressures” at Kurlana Tapa.
“We’re dealing with kids with significant histories of trauma and significant health needs – that’s why sometimes they’re there in the first place,” she said.
“I just think this government needs to invest in the human resources, but also the rehabilitation, support programs and relationships.
“We go out there every week and one of the kids said to me: ‘How are we supposed to get better and do better when we live in an environment that just gives us food and locks us in our rooms?’.”
According to Reid, children at Kurlana Tapa still have restricted access to school or medical appointments, due to a lack of available workers to safely supervise them while they’re away from their rooms.
She said the staffing situation had improved since the COVID-19 pandemic, but children were still spending more time inside their rooms than what she believed was appropriate.
“The kids are telling me they’re not doing much other than coming out of their rooms, eating food and going back in,” she said.
“I have been told by a child that they received their psychiatric service through the trapdoor of their cell door.
“When you have psychiatric services you deserve privacy, you deserve an opportunity to talk and you can’t do that through a cell door.”
Reid added that while she was never denied access to Kurlana Tapa, she often had to “modify” her visits due to low staffing.
“What that might mean is I don’t get to see every unit, I only might get to see a few units,” she said.
The Department of Human Services told InDaily that while addressing staff shortages had been a “priority” over the past 12 months, the department had faced some challenges.
“The complexity of young people on site combined with sick leave and other leave that is unable to be anticipated provides challenges in meeting staffing requirements,” a department spokesperson said.
They said strategies over the past year had included rolling recruitment, targeted recruitment to include cultural needs, intake of new staff every six weeks, a commitment to “stabilise the workforce and offer ongoing contracts”, and “increased engagement” with the PSA.
“We are committed to ensuring that all young people in KT have full access to mental health supports and that there are minimal barriers to visitation.”
“Over the past 12 months, 40 youth workers and youth support workers have been recruited. In 2023 19 workers have ceased employment for a variety of reasons.
“The Department and the Minister for Human Services will continue to ensure they have an open dialogue with the Training Centre Visitor and the PSA.”
South Australians who would like to make a difference in the lives of young people by becoming a Youth Worker with DHS can find out more information
Staff shortages are also affecting the state’s adult prisons, which were placed in lockdown on Tuesday as part of an ongoing industrial campaign by the PSA.
The lockdown was called by the union in response to claims of government inaction on addressing staffing shortages after cutbacks made under the former Liberal government.
Brown said the union couldn’t say how many more staff were required to fix the shortage at Kurlana Tapa, but it would help to have ongoing roles for all staff and for the government to continue a “concerted recruitment effort” to fill vacancies.
“The PSA has had positive discussions with the Human Services Minister about securing ongoing roles for some staff to enable some stability in the staffing situation, however, we still require more positions to be made ongoing to improve the situation,” she said.
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