Students cover child welfare work – The Sydney Morning Herald
Unpaid university interns are doing the work of child protection caseworkers in the Family and Community Services department because of acute staff shortages and heavy workloads.
FACS took 218 students on unpaid placements of several months in the last financial year, with the majority involving ”direct casework experience,” a departmental spokesman said.
The placements are competitive and highly regarded in the industry for the experience they offer social work students.
However, shortfalls in staff numbers that are putting caseworkers under immense pressure are also exposing students to confronting and traumatising tasks beyond their agreed contracts.
A senior caseworker, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said interns were being used to supplement a caseworker’s job because they simply didn’t have enough staff to do everything themselves.
”Whenever the word is out we can have a student for placement, we usually grab it, because they’re someone who can make us a bit more available to our clients by having that student do some of the work,” he said.
Recent reports by Fairfax Media revealed that three-quarters of children deemed at risk of significant harm in NSW will not see a caseworker and only 1,797 caseworkers were employed, despite funding for nearly 2100.
Community Services Minister Pru Goward has faced calls to resign for misleading Parliament on the critical shortfalls.
”A student on placement is pretty vulnerable and shouldn’t be out there doing the work of a case worker but the reality is that people are doing everything in their power to get to as many kids as they can,” the senior caseworker said. He said students often did tasks reserved for caseworkers who are trained for three months and mentored for at least a year, such as being part of the two-person team who removes a child from their home.
A departmental spokesman said interns may undertake some of the tasks that caseworkers do but it is ”part of their learning experience and … matched to their learning contract”. The students receive intense mentorship and close supervision from FACS staff and university supervisors.
Krysia Heron, 26, who recently undertook a five-month placement, said she found the work confronting but it had motivated her to work in child protection. ”What I saw was empty desks in the office and a heavy case load for the caseworkers but from them I got a positive message that individuals can make a massive difference despite the system they work in and despite the stresses they are under,” she said.
Steve Turner from the Public Service Association of NSW said the program was crucial for an industry desperate for child protection workers but it was being jeopardised by the state government’s continual failure to fill vacancies.