HALF-EMPTY child protection offices in remote NSW are slowly filling up, thanks to incentives of up to $20,000 a year for case workers to take on some of the toughest jobs in NSW.
In February, the Herald reported that half of the budgeted case-worker positions in Department of Community Services offices in north-western NSW, from Wilcannia across to Inverell and south to Dubbo, were unfilled. There were 25 jobs to fill in Dubbo.
There were no case workers at all in Brewarrina, where four positions remained empty, and case workers were travelling 100 kilometres to service the town from Bourke – where six out of 11 positions were also unfilled.
The shortages made the north-west a particularly dangerous place for indigenous children, who are four times more likely to be victims of abuse or neglect, according to the NSW Government’s report Breaking The Silence . Several towns in the north-west region, such as Brewarrina, Walgett and Wilcannia, are more than 50 per cent indigenous.
But 16 new case workers were placed in the seven months since the Herald’s story, using annual incentives such as a living away from home allowance of $12,000-$16,000 a year, a $5000 cash bonus and additional training, the department said. Nine were new appointments and seven were "tree-changers", voluntarily transferred from metropolitan offices.
There are now three positions empty in Bourke, two in Brewarrina and 19 in Dubbo.
Despite the progress made, the Wood report into child protection in NSW last month found that "the existing services for responding to substance abuse, family violence and neglect in NSW are fragmented, poorly linked and do not reach the more high-risk, remote communities".
Linda Burney, the first Aboriginal community services minister in NSW, promised indigenous staff a "new beginning" in child protection at a conference last month.
She said the main test of her tenure as the state’s first indigenous community services minister would be reducing the 30 per cent of children in out-of-home care who are indigenous, although they make up only 4 per cent of the population.
It would require more Aboriginal case workers and foster carers, and cultural change within the organisation, but she knew the issues backwards and the situation of indigenous children was already improving. "The distance between where the department was then and where it is now is immeasurable," she said.
DOCS says filling vacancies in remote NSW is a continuing challenge "due to the nature of the work and the breadth of coverage required to meet community needs".
The MPs John Cobb, Dawn Fardell and Kevin Humphries have called forpreventive "safe houses" to be funded in every town and a "flying squad" of case workers on permanent rotation out of metropolitan offices into remote NSW.