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Let Families SA staff speak out

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There has been heated public discussion in South Australia recently about the lack of protection given to the most vulnerable citizens in our community – children. The effectiveness of the child protection system to protect children from harm has been questioned.

As a result, a Royal Commission headed by Justice Margaret Nyland has been appointed to investigate the adequacy of the existing practices and procedures. This is a vitally important opportunity to radically review a system that is in crisis. Children are no longer consistently kept safe.

Late last year Justice Nyland publicly announced that the commission had only received 20 submissions, far fewer than expected. While there is no doubt that the low submission rate is partially due to the busy time before the Christmas break, there are other possible causes.

The Australian Association of Social Workers (AASW) talks to social workers who work in child protection, both in Families SA and associated non-government agencies. We hear that the staff of Families SA have a very strong understanding that they should not make submissions to the Royal Commission. What a waste of first-hand knowledge and experience, for those who work directly with the families not to be able to make suggestions about what needs to change.

Why might this be? The Public Service Code of Ethics says “public sector employees will only make comment in relation to their duties … including policy or programs … when specifically authorised to do so”.

No doubt Families SA as a whole will be making its own submission. But this will be the edited version. One of the problems affecting the practice of the department is a great concern about the political ramifications of any decision. This means decisions are top down and do not take into proper account the actual face-to-face experiences of those doing the work.

The professional knowledge of assessment, systemic influences, social disadvantage, child development and neurobiological reactions to trauma are overridden by political and risk averse decisions made too far from the ‘coal face’ to be fully relevant, timely and useful to individual cases.

Courage and leadership is needed to open up the practices of the child protection system to real analysis.

Political and public press reactions to Families SA problems are at times venomous. A defensive reaction to this fierce political point-scoring has created a culture of secrecy within the department. Issues are not discussed openly and solutions to problems not canvassed broadly. Professional knowledge is often ignored or dismissed.

The AASW understands that child protection decisions are always complex and difficult. We support Families SA in having to make some professionally supported decisions which are unpopular. However, the system needs evaluation, and open discussion is the best way for the community to understand the issues and for the Royal Commission to make useful recommendations.

Courage and leadership is needed to open up the practices of the child protection system to real analysis. Families SA needs to release a little of the control and share some of the authority to allow partner agencies, foster parents and the families involved to have a truly collaborative role in making decisions about the children involved.

One of the best ways to open up the child protection system for discussion is to allow staff of Families SA to make submissions to the Royal Commission, so they can provide invaluable information about what is working, not working and what can be improved.

That is why the AASW has called on Families SA to make a public statement encouraging staff to make submissions to the Royal Commission with assurances that they will not be penalised in any way for doing so.

This is an incredibly valuable opportunity to change things for the better for the children at risk in our state. Let’s not waste it.

Mary Hood is President of the South Australian branch of the Australian Association of Social Workers.

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