After the last annual count, in mid-2019, there have been further shocking deaths and harm to children: a four-year-old girl with Down syndrome was found decomposed in her crib, two baby sisters died in a hot car and two autistic brothers were discovered living in squalid conditions.
All of these kids were also known to the department.
These cases and fears of further risk to children have driven two child safety whistleblowers to speak out about “untenable” workloads they say could lead to more deaths.
The workers, along with their union, have also told ABC Investigations that the Queensland Government’s average figure of 18 cases per worker does not reflect the workloads of staff around the state.
Child safety manager Cheryl Budge resigned in 2019 after 15 years at the Department of Child Safety, Youth and Women.
“I would describe the Department of Child Safety in Queensland as currently self-imploding,” she said.
“That is due to the excessive workload for staff and the lack of resources available to staff.”
Her former colleague, Rebecca Hocking, has been on stress leave from her role as a child safety officer since 2018.
“From my perspective, if workers had the time to be doing what they’re meant to be doing … very likely some of these cases where children have died or suffered extreme harm wouldn’t have occurred,” Hocking said.
Of the 58 children who died in the last annual count in 2018-19, the Queensland Family and Child Commission reported that six died from neglect or “suspected/confirmed” fatal assault, 14 from suicide, 23 from natural causes and four from drowning.
Since then, there have been other tragic cases of children dying and being harmed, sparking severe criticism of the Government from advocates, the union and the State Opposition.
Questions over Government’s caseload figures
Three major inquiries under various governments have examined the Department of Child Safety’s protection of children.
One of the key recommendations was a maximum caseload of 15 cases per worker, but Queensland has never reached that figure.
Western Australia has a limit of 15 cases per worker, South Australia averages under 15, and Victoria’s average caseload is 14.
The department said an extra 450 staff had been employed since 2015 and there would be another 196 brought on over the next four years.
And it added that in the last year, the Queensland Government invested $1.3 billion in the child protection system.
In July, the Government spruiked the child safety worker caseloads as the “lowest they have been in decades”, with the average sitting around 17 to 18 children over the last 12 months.
But ABC Investigations has spoken to eight current and former workers, and the Together Union, who are all saying the official government figure is lower than the case numbers many staff are carrying on the ground.
Budge managed multiple offices in the state’s southwest and said it was commonly discussed that the reported numbers appeared inaccurate.
“The caseloads in Queensland … were excessive in the sense that most child safety officers would hold a caseload between 20 and 30 children … really all they’re able to do is crisis management,” Budge said.
She also said she was required to keep some positions vacant which increased the caseload for other staff.
“There’s a mandatory 5 per cent vacancy held and when child safety officers are on leave, whether it’s recreational leave or sick leave, they’re not backfilled.”
The Together Union said it understands a common way for service centres to make up shortfalls in the funding of positions was to hold some vacant.
The union’s state secretary, Alex Scott, also questioned how the department was averaging the caseload figures.
“We have concerns that the way the average is calculated is not a true reflection of the workload stresses of our members. We understand that it is based on funded positions at a point in time, not necessarily taking into account vacancies,” Mr Scott said.
The department has told ABC Investigations that it is “incorrect” to say Service Centres are required to keep a percentage of positions vacant.
It did not respond to a specific question about how the average was calculated and whether vacant positions were included.
However, the department said: “The average caseload state-wide has been 18.1 or below per Child Safety Officer (CSO) for the 10th consecutive quarter, down from more than 21 per CSO in 2012-2015.”
Investigations ‘commenced’ without seeing children
Budge has also raised concerns about the length of time it takes for workers to investigate and visit children who are in danger after the department receives a notification.
She said an investigation could be marked as “commenced” in the required timeframe if a third party such as police, doctor or teacher sighted the child — without a child safety officer visiting the child.
“Child safety officers need to get out there and sight those children to make sure they are safe and that they are not being harmed further,” Budge said.
“As long as the case was commenced, it comes off the record as needing to be investigated, even though that investigation may not be completed for another month, which means that child sits in that situation at significant risk.
“It doesn’t mean that the child is actually being visited or the appropriate work has been done with that child.”
A former child safety officer who used to do investigations in the southwest, and who did not want to be identified, also expressed concerns about delays in seeing children.
“The worry about that is … you can’t see if they’ve got bruising, if there is emotional abuse, physical abuse and neglect.”
“Statistically it looks like we are doing something when we aren’t … we sit on it for up to six weeks or longer.
“When do we really get out there and do our work?”
The department says the most urgent cases are prioritised “with 94 per cent of priority investigations started within a 24-hour period”.
It said this the “best result” since the data started being recorded in 2008.
‘I couldn’t sleep … I became very depressed, incredibly anxious’
Child safety officer Rebecca Hocking has told ABC Investigations that she is speaking out because she believes “untenable” workloads could put more children — and workers — at risk of harm.
She said more frontline staff were needed to better protect and meet the needs of children.
“When I’ve been overloaded, my greatest fear is that a child could die or be seriously harmed … because there simply wasn’t the capacity to do everything that was required to keep the child safe,” she said.
Hocking went on stress leave in 2018 after a sustained period of managing up to 25 children on high-risk orders where they stay with family.
Her caseloads fluctuated, but at its highest she was unable to make the mandated weekly visits to some children.
“What we were doing was so important … it mattered to us to be able to keep children safe and yet we weren’t. That was our mandate…but we weren’t given the tools to do it,” she said.
“I couldn’t sleep, I was teary, I was unmotivated … I became very depressed, incredibly anxious, and I think I just shut down.”
In 2015 and 2018, Hocking raised questions internally about the department’s reported average caseload figures and workload pressures.
“I think it’s grossly unfair, it’s misrepresenting the harm that’s occurring to staff,” Hocking said.
“It’s refusing to acknowledge the potential harm and risk to children through child safety officers not being available to meet their needs and protect them from harm.”
Hocking has raised similar concerns on social media and was told she could face disciplinary action, but she said it was important to continue speaking out despite risks of further repercussions.
“Something needs to happen, something needs to change, no more rhetoric, no more placing kids at harm, no more harming workers through untenable workloads.”
– ABC / Alexandra Blucher