Suffer still the little children

For many, the detail is just too awful to read.
杭州桑拿

The torture that Tanilla Opal Warrick-Deaves was forced to endure before she died at the age of two is horrifying.

After years in opposition talking up the need for more transparency, Pru Goward was left grappling to explain lingering failures in the child protection system that she now oversees.

Two years into power, the O’Farrell government’s honeymoon has come to a shattering end when it comes to dealing with the interminable policy nightmare of preventable child deaths, including those that happened under Labor’s watch.

Goward has faced questions about whether the budget bottom line has left her department short of case workers it needs.

Tanilla weighed 14 kilograms when she died in 2007. She lived with her mother Donna Deaves and her mother’s boyfriend of about two months.

According to an agreed statement of facts, the boyfriend has been diagnosed with bipolar disorder and had been trying to toilet train Tanilla for four weeks before she died.

As punishment for wetting her pants, she was allegedly given a cold shower and dangled upside down by one leg, naked, wet and shivering, over the toilet bowl. On another occasion, she was forced to stay up all evening and to watch the toilet.

As punishment for dropping a heavy toolbox on her tiny hand, which swelled to the size of a man’s, the two-year-old, who had bowed legs, was allegedly made to run laps of the lounge room until she was crying and collapsed to the floor from exhaustion.

After her head was allegedly bashed against the shower screen, she eventually became drowsy, lingered unconscious and was left unattended for two days in a pram as her breathing slowly faded and finally stopped.

While Tanilla’s mother has accepted some responsibility for her child’s death, having pleaded guilty to manslaughter, her relatives are also asking why the Department of Community Services did not act on 33 reports they say they made about Tanilla’s welfare.

But child welfare experts are also asking whether a single agency can prevent a problem that was generations in the making.

Tanilla’s case, which follows that of six-year-old Kiesha Weippart, who was murdered by her mother, provides a confronting example of the complex, but not uncommon, mix of massive social, economic and mental health problems involved in child abuse.

Two high-profile cases – those of the girl known as Ebony, who died of starvation, and Dean Shillingsworth, who was thrown into a pond stuffed inside a suitcase, helped trigger the Wood special commission of inquiry into child protection services in 2009.

Wood found many of the families in contact with the Department of Community Services were on low incomes, unemployed, drug and alcohol abusers, suffering mental health problems, with limited social and housing supports. Often they had been to prison and had themselves been victims of abuse.

Louise Voigt, the chief executive officer and welfare director at Barnardos, says it is a ”a bit of a cop-out for everybody to see child welfare as failing” and to blame government caseworkers for the consequences of disadvantage left unattended by the rest of society.

”It isn’t the business of child welfare to stop alcoholism years before. It’s too facile to say the child welfare department has failed,” she said.

The Wood inquiry found the Department of Community Services was drowning under the weight of too many less serious complaints not requiring its statutory powers, and which were taking its attention and limited resources away from the children at most serious risk of harm. Most of the serious cases were not even seen for an assessment and safety check before they were closed.

The Wood inquiry found 19 per cent of reports of children at risk of harm – the highest proportion in the state – were from the Hunter and central coast, where Tanilla died.

Latest available figures show the region still has the highest proportion shared with Northern NSW, but now at 16.3 per cent. The metropolitan west and far west of the state closely follow at 15.4 and 15.2 per cent.

In response to the findings, the former Labor government introduced the Keep Them Safe initiative which aimed to share responsibility for child protection with the non-government sector and other agencies including the police and the departments of health, education and housing.

”There are some signs that there is more collaboration between government departments, but frankly this isn’t just a state responsibility,” Voigt says. ”There is a group of people who are totally left behind in our society and those are the people where child abuse is occurring.”

While the transfer of less serious cases and out-of-home care to non-government agencies was designed to free up the Department of Community Services caseworkers to see the most serious cases, four years on as many as three out of four children at risk of significant harm are still unlikely to ever see a community services caseworker and undergo a safety check.

Government figures obtained by Fairfax Media under freedom of information laws show 61,308 children and young people were reported as being at risk of significant harm in 2011-12. But only 16,409 were interviewed by a caseworker and given a safety check. The department says this is an 11.8 per cent improvement on 2009-10 in the number of children seen by caseworkers.

In his review of the Keep Them Safe initiative released in August 2011, the NSW Ombudsman said there had been a 33 per cent drop in the number of child protection reports to the Helpline and in the number of child protection reports referred for further investigation. Yet, ”on any measure, it is unacceptable that 25 per cent of all reports assessed by community services as indicating risk of significant harm received no response in the first 12 months of Keep Them Safe. All of these reports were closed on the basis of competing priorities.”

Goward, the Family and Community Services Minister, says reform takes time and the government is on its way to remedying inefficient work practices, reducing red tape and correcting an unwieldy computer program which has been slowing down the reporting of cases and preventing workers from spending enough time with the children who need them.

Despite repeated requests for the number of caseworkers, the government will only say it is “around 2000”. Fairfax Media obtained figures showing the number fell from 2097 in 2011 to 1987 in 2012.

The department abolished 117 full-time caseworker positions when it transferred an early intervention program known as Brighter Futures to the non-government sector.

A community services manager who did not want their name published said the loss of 117 caseworkers has been a ”catastrophe” because the government sector needed them and the non-government sector did not have the resources to cope with the extra workload.

”All of those caseworkers who are no longer with us represented a caseload of 10 to 16 families,” the manager said.

”We are still operating under a staffing freeze. There has been a deliberate decision not to replace staff as they leave. The positions being filled are temporary.”

In recent months, Goward has denied there has ”ever” been a freeze on hiring caseworkers and says vacancies are being filled. She insists there have been no reduction in frontline services, despite having to cut $412 million from her budget over the next four years, including $110 million this financial year.

However, after Fairfax Media published an internal memo showing that there had been a moratorium on hiring new caseworkers last year, Goward admitted there had been a ”temporary stall” when the Brighter Futures program was transferred to the non-government sector. This was to ensure the 299 caseworkers who had worked for the Brighter Futures early intervention program “got first bite at the remaining jobs in the department that were free”.

Voigt says it is still too early to judge the success of the Keep Them Safe reforms, but she believes the transfer of responsibilities for out of home care to the non-government sector is working.

”An inquiry like Wood, the response at the state level will take time to develop. Some parts of it are doing well and some parts aren’t,” she says.

”We are talking about people in gross poverty and housing is getting worse. We are finding families living in cars.

”No wonder they explode into violence.”

The original release of this article first appeared on the website of Hangzhou Night Net.