Who was there for the Illawarra’s vulnerable children? – Illawarra Mercury
More than a dozen positions have reportedly not been filled at Family and Community Services offices in Coniston and Shellharbour as caseworkers struggle under the strain of a 50 per cent region-wide job vacancy rate.
The Public Service Association claims the Coniston FACS office has lost an entire team, equivalent to six full-time caseworkers, while the Shellharbour branch has nine vacancies that have not been filled.
PSA regional organiser Tony Heathwood rejected claims by Family and Community Services Minister Pru Goward that the staff vacancy rate at the Wollongong office had reduced by one-third.
He told the Mercury there was roughly a 50 per cent vacancy rate on caseworker jobs in the region’s FACS department, spanning from Ulladulla to Coniston, compared with two years ago.
The association’s assertions come after NSW Labor claimed Ms Goward lied to Parliament about numbers in the Wollongong office that left staff unable to work on the case of Berkeley toddler Zoran Ivanovski.
Labor said the two-year-old was reported to caseworkers in the weeks leading up to his death on August 4 last year.
Just days after the boy’s death, Ms Goward told Parliament no caseworker jobs had been shed at the Wollongong office, despite claims by staff that reduced numbers meant they couldn’t allocate the case, Labor said.
But departmental emails, revealed this week, showed the number of child protection workers in Wollongong fell by 25 per cent last year, Labor claimed.
Mr Heathwood said Illawarra caseworkers were simply snowed under and could not visit every child.
“These staff are certainly feeling the pinch … there are children who aren’t being seen because there’s not enough resources in place,” Mr Heathwood said.
“There is a massive level of concern among staff that they are not able to provide the necessary safety for those at-risk children that come to their attention.
“They are very concerned something is going to happen to those children that proper staffing might have prevented.”
Several temporary staff have been appointed to help fill the gap, the association claims, but Mr Heathwood said it was purely a short-term fix and the permanent vacancies needed to be filled.
“There is a backlog problem and it’s not going to be fixed with short-term workers,” he said.
“There are clearly workload issues and a backlog of children that aren’t being seen because there’s not enough resources.”
State Opposition Leader John Robertson has called for Ms Goward to be sacked over the alleged bungle.
A spokesman for Ms Goward told the Mercury “advice from the department is that the caseworker headcount at Wollongong increased between 2010 and 2012, and that budgeted positions remained constant during 2011 and 2012 at 37.7 full-time equivalent positions”.
She said on operational matters the minister relied on advice from her department.
“The Auditor-General reported caseworker vacancies last year were the lowest in many years at 152 or 7 per cent, compared to what he reported in 2010, under Minister Burney, which was 497, or 20 per cent of the total.”
He said the minister instructed the director general in March to fill all budgeted caseworker positions.
“Updated figures will be available online later this year, as the minister has committed to many times.”