20 Feb 2017

Social worker shortage leaving children at risk, say lawyers

8:01 pm on 20 February 2017

A shortage of Child Youth and Family (CYF) social workers and a lack of resources is leaving children at risk of abuse and neglect, say family lawyers.

cowering child

Family lawyers said there was a shortage of CYF social workers and a lack of resources. Photo: 123RF

It comes two years after an internal review recommended CYF review social workers' caseloads and look at increasing the number of front-line social workers.

Belinda Inglis, a Masterton-based family lawyer, said in the past six months, 10 staff who specialised in care and protection had left CYF, and they had not all been replaced yet.

Ms Inglis, who acted as a lawyer for children in the Family Court, said when she looked at a child's history, CYF staff shortages and lack of resourcing were often evident.

"You often find a long litany of reports of concern in the child's history, where there's been no intervention or really ineffective intervention or follow up.

"And during that time the child's often suffered ongoing neglect or abuse, exposure to family violence. So the problems for that child are compounding during that period," she said.

She said cases were being delayed, often for several months, as parties waited for a court-ordered CYF report.

Ms Inglis said a reluctance by the state agency to intervene often made things worse - like a case involving a pregnant teenager.

"CYFs ended up applying on an urgent basis for custody of that child at the time of the child's birth, without having done the planning in the months when they knew the young woman was pregnant, where they could have perhaps planned for that young mother to go into a residential parenting programme, which could have addressed the issues successfully," she said.

CYF refers worried grandmother to family court

Nelson lawyer Michelle Duggan, who chaired the Law Society's family law section, said she had noticed the threshold for CYF intervention was getting higher and higher - and cited a recent example where a grandmother phoned her concerned about her grandchild's welfare.

"Concerned about family violence, concerned about drug use by Mum and Dad, concerned about the new partners of Mum and Dad. Is really worried that the grandchild is at risk and CYF say 'that is a really serious situation, we know the people you're talking about. But you need to go and take that to the Family Court yourself and get involved and ask for a parenting order'."

Ms Duggan said that placed huge financial and personal responsibility on a grandparent and pitted them against their child and their child's ex-partner, creating a terrible dynamic.

After it was raised in the Family Court, CYF investigated.

"They did their investigation and they concluded that there was no basis on which they would hold a family group conference and they would leave it for the grandparents and the parents to resolve in the family court," she said.

In another case, a 10-year-old boy who could not live with his parents or whānau had a succession of social workers, including three in the past year.

Ms Duggan said there appeared to be difficulty attracting people and there was a high turnover of existing staff, reflecting the tough nature of the job.

"It's a really, really hard job. And you seem to be open to criticism from all sides. You've got supervisor expectations, you've got the expectations of the parents and the families that you're working with, you've got court expectations, you've got the expectations of the lawyer for the child.

"And it would seem, I think, you're damned if you do and damned if you don't," she said.

Social workers' caseloads remain high

Social Workers Association chief executive Lucy Sandford-Reed said social workers' caseloads remained high and those that were not meeting their key performance indicators often ended up on performance improvement plans.

"You get caught in the double-bind of 'do I do what I know I need to do, to improve the outcome for this child or young person? Or do I do what I know I need to do to meet my employer demands?"

"Social workers are often being put in the position of having to make some very difficult personal, ethical, employment type decisions around that sort of stuff."

The PSA said it had raised concerns with the Ministry of Social Development about social worker vacancies in Masterton and Dannevirke which were affecting their ability to support young people. It said the Ministry was taking action.

The Ministry of Social Development said it was actively recruiting in areas where there were vacancies for social workers.

It said the new Ministry for Vulnerable Children - expected to launch in April - included strengthening assessments and actively managing caseloads.

But the Labour Party said Child Youth and Family was chronically underfunded and changing the ministry's name would make little difference.

Labour's children's spokesperson, Jacinda Ardern, said last year Child Youth and Family admitted it hadn't set aside enough money to pay for increased wage costs, greater demand and policy changes, which would leave a $56 million shortfall by 2019.

Ms Ardern said there was another $109 million in remuneration costs - things like wages and holiday pay - which hadn't been budgeted for.

"Trying to cover that by just making sure they're not putting staff into vacancies, that puts children at risk, it puts pressure on social workers, it really is a ticking time bomb and we're starting to see that in our regions."

The Minister for Children Anne Tolley rejected those claims and said the government was injecting hundreds of millions of dollars into the Ministry for Vulnerable Children.

Ms Tolley said last year's budget injected $347 million of new funding into the agency over the next four years, almost half of which was to meet frontline cost pressures.