In January 2012, four year old Chloe Valentine died in appalling circumstances at the hands of her mother and her mother’s partner. Both were found guilty of manslaughter and jailed. During her short life Chloe was the subject of many notifications to Families South Australia, and her family received considerable support from Families SA social workers.
The public were understandably horrified and sickened by the manner of the Chloe’s death. These strong emotions unleashed a powerful impulse to allocate blame. The mother and the social workers involved were in the front line of a flood of righteous rage.
Sometimes when children die in these circumstances qualified social workers are justifiably annoyed at being blamed since the workers involved do not always have a social work degree. But in this case there was no place to hide….Families South Australia hire qualified social workers as a matter of policy.
After a long running inquest, Mark Johns, the South Australian Coroner handed down his findings in April this year. I have always felt a strong empathy for any social worker caught up in this kind of enquiry. No matter what their personal accountability, they are usually caught in a web of bureaucracy, inadequate supervision, and high workloads. Add to this a sensationalist media, and these workers will feel besieged and persecuted.
The extended inquest fuelled the outrage led by the local media. And far from providing the balanced or thoughtful analysis that this tragedy deserved, the Coroner weighed in with his own simple remedies to tackle the root causes of child abuse, including the holus-bolus application of income management, trampling on privacy, mandatory drug testing and fast-tracking the adoption of foster children. Whilst these measures played well to popular sentiment, they are solutions that have all been tried- and failed- the USA being the favored testing ground for this kind of social engineering.
In its haste to be seen to act, the South Australian government supported all the Coroner’s recommendations. But past experience suggests that few if any will be implemented. In the last 15 years there have been at least 32 child protection enquiries in various parts of Australia, and many more overseas. We are entitled to ask- what has changed?
It is difficult to make any definitive judgments on the Coroner’s views without access to the thousands of pages of statements and transcripts. But on the facts that the Coroner reports, it is hard to disagree with his primary finding- that Families SA should have used its coercive powers against Chloe’s mother to stipulate a range of conditions that had to be met in order for Chloe to remain with her mother. If she had not complied, Families SA would then have been justified in removing Chloe from her care.
In effect, Families SA were being berated for simply not following their own rules. What went wrong? The Coroner blamed it on a departmental culture that sought to downplay the actual risks of abuse, together with a reluctance to use its coercive powers. It is noteworthy too, that from top to bottom in Families SA no one broke ranks, from the department head to the most junior caseworker. If there was debate or disagreement on the conduct of this case, it seems to have been kept in house. Unusual, as this kind of enquiry often offers up a scapegoat on the altar of blame.
What is lacking (at least in the Coroner’s report) is evidence of any critical reflection or analysis from the senior social workers involved in this case. Social work is an independent profession with a core commitment to child protection and social justice. The Coroner could have called on a range of highly qualified social work experts, but he seems to have relied on one expert with a particular view that suited his own. This is no substitute for a robust root cause analysis. If Families SA conducted an internal analysis we are not privy to it. Nor did the Coroner (or Families SA) as far as I know, call upon the Australian Association of Social Workers (AASW) who could have provided high quality informed comment. (What a lost opportunity!)
The Coroner also recommended that social workers be registered. These days professional registration is a national process oversighted by Health Ministers from all the states and territories through the Council of Australian Governments. COAG does not have a mechanism for family and community service minsters to get together, and South Australia is the only state that prefers to employ qualified social workers in statutory child protection. And so what might the remedy be to ensure the practice standards of the thousands of child protection workers who are not social workers? Health Ministers agreeing on social worker’s registration is extremely unlikely for reasons I have covered elsewhere, and child protection concerns will not add to the argument.
More importantly, registration may define the lowest acceptable practice standards, but it will not create an environment where the highest practice standards can flourish in a challenging and complex work setting. Indeed in countries where social work is registered, the process has been used to scapegoat individual social workers, rather than address the systemic issues of inadequate supervision, poor training and excessive workloads. (See the case of baby Peter Connelly in England). The registration recommendation sends a message that the social work profession cannot be trusted, even within a tightly controlled environment, to maintain quality practice standards.
From time to time there have been calls to establish a national entity such as a college that would identify the qualifications, attributes and qualities of statutory child protection workers. In our free market world neither the states nor the federal government will join forces to invest in such as body. (Perhaps just as well because it could never be truly independent.)
More salient still- this independent body already exists in the shape of the Australian Association of Social Workers (AASW). But the AASW lacks authority simply because its membership is sparse amongst the child protection workforce, even in South Australia. Worse still there are too many eminent child protection experts who are not members.
This must change. We can reduce the number of child deaths and the rate of child abuse. We must reclaim our professional independence and our professional authority. In government bureaucracies individuals who speak truth to power are often scapegoated and marginalised. It is far more effective to speak up with a strong independent professional association at your back. If there were voices inside Families SA demanding better training, higher quality supervision, and adequate staff to cover leave or escalate complex cases- they were not heeded or heard.
The AASW must redouble its efforts to recruit child protection workers. But it cannot do this without the partnership of the industrial unions that cover this workforce. Public sector unions are becoming far more conscious of defending the right of the public to a socially just and high quality service. There must be a partnership between the AASW and public sector unions to advocate for reasonable workloads and adequate supervision. Most vital of all must be a concerted effort to drive a culture which accepts only the highest standards of professional care. The public are entitled to it.
And South Australia is a good place to start.