October 22, 2010
A YEAR ago, when Ombudsman George Brouwer reported on Victoria’s child-protection system, The Age summarised his conclusions in this way: ”too much is asked of too few, who are underpaid and overstretched”. As we reported yesterday, little has changed despite the hiring of extra case workers and a $77.2 million injection of funds. Out of a workforce of just over 1000, 231 child-protection workers either resigned or had their contracts terminated in 2009. The extreme stress endured by child-protection workers is evident from the so-called ”churn” rate: of those who left last year, 95, or about 40 per cent, had been in the job less than 12 months.
The opposition has been predictably quick to interpret the figures as confirmation of the ”chronic and systemic” failure of child protection in Victoria, and to demand the dismissal of Community Services Minister Lisa Neville. Ms Neville, in turn, pointed out that the Coalition had not yet said what it would do to fix matters, or how much money it would devote to the task. So far as politicians are concerned, the debate is likely to remain enmeshed in accusations and counter-accusations of this kind until next month’s state election. Neither party, however, has been willing to discuss the underlying causes of the churn rate among child-protection workers.
Yesterday The Age also reported on unemployment in outer Melbourne and regional centres. While the national jobless rate hovers around 5 per cent and in some of Melbourne’s more affluent suburbs is as low as 3 per cent, it is a different story further out. In Broadmeadows it is a staggering 15.9 per cent, in Dandenong 13.6 per cent, in Sunshine 10.6 per cent and down in the Corio region 9.2 per cent. These were once manufacturing hubs, but the loss of manufacturing jobs as employers seek cheaper labour overseas is turning them into pockets of chronic unemployment. That inevitably creates pressures on families, and it is not surprising that the churn rate among child-protection workers is highest in Melbourne’s northern and western suburbs, where 58 per cent of the workers who left last year had been in the job less than 12 months.
There is no quick fix for poverty, and no simple chain of cause and effect linking chronic unemployment and child abuse. But that poverty is frequently a factor in abuse cannot be denied, and if politicians are serious about trying to repair the system they should look beyond churn rates to the causes of stress within families.