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Staff shortfall in Families SA offset blowout in emergency care

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A blowout in the amount of money spent by the state’s child protection agency on emergency accommodation – which senior executives have described as “the worst kind of care” – was offset on the financial books because the department recruited 300 fewer staff than it was entitled to.

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The new heads of the recently-separated Education and Child Protection Departments, Rick Persse and Cathy Taylor, today fronted parliament’s Budget and Finance Committee, which heard that despite previous claims of a glut of applications, the former Families SA only employed 1652 of the 1949 full-time staff for which it was budgeted in the last financial year.

A significant proportion of the shortfall was in residential care workers, with department officials revealing that as of November 30 the agency had failed to fill around 124 of its allocated 603 care worker positions.

Over the same period, the former Families SA spent up to $50 million over its budget allocation for emergency accommodation expenditure, whose final spend came in at $82.9 million for 2015-16.

That was after a budget cap set between $30 to $40 million – but incredibly, officials told the committee they had only budgeted $25 million for the same area in the current financial year.

Committee chair, Liberal frontbencher Rob Lucas, was incredulous at the revelation, telling media the revamped department had “Buckley’s hope of meeting that” budget aspiration.

“It’s a mess,” he said.

“There’s something wrong with the government, the department and their processes when, at a time when we have a child protection crisis, they had the budget to employ 300 additional child protection staff and didn’t… and they ended up blowing their budget on very expensive commercial care, when they were funded to employ child protection staff.”

Former Families SA CEO Tony Harrison had told a previous committee the department had received some 1300 applications, including 400 for social work positions, to fill ongoing vacancies.

Yet the department remained under quota by 307 staff at the end of the financial year.

Education CEO Persse told the committee the agency had “a very dynamic workforce”.

“As we recruit, we’re turning over staff – staff are coming and going at a rate that’s different form other agencies I’ve been involved with,” he said.

Taylor, recently appointed to head up the new Child Protection Department, said: “ We need to position ourselves as an employer of choice.”

Asked about the blowout in emergency accommodation spending, which Lucas estimated to be around $40-$50 million, Persse said the department’s overall overspend was actually “about $20 million”, acknowledging the “serious headroom” in staff costs “helped fund the blowout in emergency care”.

The committee heard the department intends to dramatically reduce its reliance on short-term residential care, which Persse called “the most expensive and the worst kind of care”.

“Our care blend for kids in care is not where we want it to be,” he said.

“We want to get that balance much closer to the national average.”

Lucas replied that “if you’d employed the number of staff you’re funded to employ, don’t you accept your emergency accommodation budget would have been significantly reduced?”

Persse said he did accept that, but argued the equation was not as simple as hiring staff “over in the land of short-term residential care”.

“It’s not just staff, it’s also beds… you can have all the staff in the world and not enough beds,” he said.

The committee heard the former department for Education and Child Development’s cost overruns were “entirely due to cost pressures associated with the former Families SA”.

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