NINE OUT of ten children notified to the Department of Family and Community Services (FaCS) as being at risk will not be seen by a child protection caseworker face-to-face.
This was one of the complaints that led 38 FaCS workers, who are members of the NSW Public Service Association (PSA), out of their offices and on to the street on Wednesday, leaving a skeleton staff inside to deal with emergencies.
The stop-work action was timed to coincide with a visit to Lismore from the Minister for Family and Community Services, Pru Goward.
Assistant secretary of the PSA, Steve Turner, told The Echo protracted understaffing, a refusal to backfill positions left vacant by workers on leave or off sick and an unacceptably high burden of administration work is leaving vulnerable children in danger of harm.
"We are playing Russian
roulette with people's lives," Mr Turner said.
"Lismore is the fifth place in NSW to stage an action. Vacancy rates vary from 22% to 40%. We need the government to commit to filling those vacancies.
"Four years ago, the Woods Commission of Enquiry (into child protection in NSW) found that the department was chronically understaffed and under-resourced and caseworkers were carrying a horrible burden of administration. It's five years since his findings were handed down, and nothing has changed."
Ms Goward was in town for an Aboriginal Task Force meeting. She said the union was "making trouble" because union elections were coming up in September.
While saying she "couldn't confirm" that only one in 10 children gets seen by a caseworker, Ms Goward told The Echo that one of her tasks was to improve the vacancy rate.
The minister denied there was any reduction in caseworker positions, though she admitted numbers fluctuated when people went on leave.
"We have transferred some positions in the Brighter Futures program to the non-government sector, identified in the Woods Enquiry as being better at dealing with that end of the work," Ms Goward said.
Brighter Futures is an early-intervention program that seeks to identify families at risk earlier and prevent them from entering the child protection system
"This means some caseworker positions (in that area) have been reduced.
"But in terms of child protection caseworkers, nothing has changed; we need our child protection workers, that is our core business, they are the forensic people who do our investigations.
"I understand there is a growing demand for child protection services in this region and that's something I want the department to look at in terms of resourcing."
An industrial officer with the PSA, Robin Croon, urged people to take the issue up with their local MPs.
"We'd like to see people... showing their support for caseworkers who are very distressed at having to decide which case is the most urgent among many notifications of children at risk."