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The child protection system is broken and business as usual will not do

Published: 14 September 2020

Last week was National Child Protection Week, and the theme this year was "Putting Children First". Child protection is incredibly complex work, and involves some of the most vulnerable children and families in society.

Beyond sharing a social media post or holding a morning tea, the week gave us good reason to seriously pause, deliberate, articulate and legislate ways to improve the lives of children, and to ensure child abuse, poverty and neglect aren't ignored.

Recently in South Australia and Queensland there has been media coverage of multiple cases of death and harm being caused to children, including the avoidable cases of a four-year-old girl with Down syndrome and two baby sisters. These stories have been compounded by growing concerns around child poverty, illustrated recently by two autistic brothers found living in absolute neglect.

I want to raise the issue of better and smarter regulation of social workers.

In the wake of the damning 2016 coronial findings on the death of Chloe Valentine, there was suggestion of a national registration system for the profession of social work. This would be a significant public safety measure that would reduce risk and ensure education, practice, and professional standards.

To this day, social workers are not registered as practitioners in Australia. Rather, they are unregistered practitioners and excluded from the National Registration and Accreditation Scheme. The Australian Association of Social Workers has a non-compulsory program, but it has seen limited uptake.

This means technically anyone can call themselves a social worker, since there is no statutory body that regulates the profession. Malpractice, unethical treatment, and gaps can emerge - seen recently in concerns around conversion therapy and the criminalising of the practice in the ACT and Queensland.

Coronial and government reports continue to identify failures in the child protection system, including the over-representation of Indigenous children, and they continue to call for this national statutory registration of social workers.

I believe that to "put children first", we need a strong, well-trained, and regulated workforce to be prepared for the current and future complexity of child protection, poverty and neglect.

An overhaul of a broken system must mean better regulation and innovation. National statutory registration would reduce the risks to vulnerable people by assuring standards in child protection - as well as disability, domestic violence, mental health, drug and alcohol and crisis work. It would also provide greater assurance to workers in the sector who often do not feel supported to make difficult decisions.

Don't we expect teachers, nurses, doctors and psychologists to have the relevant training and registration with them? Would we let just anyone teach, treat or provide counselling to our children?

National registration would mean the federal government could ensure there is a consistent framework and appropriate training, which will create a pool of professionals which employers and the public can trust to meet the needs of vulnerable children and their families.

Registration of social workers will not, as some report, take away choice; the aim would be to make the choice safe. With an appropriate training framework, it would allow an employer or client to find a social worker that best matches their needs, while reducing risk.

Child protection workers and social workers alike continue to feel unsupported in their roles professionally, and public confidence in social work needs improvement. Given delays in registration, there has been no strong foundation for the profession to build that public confidence in its ability to manage the complex and wicked problem of child protection.

There also needs to be a strong training and educational foundation for the profession to move into the future, especially post-COVID-19. Recently, social work university courses were at risk of being part of the biggest higher education reforms in decades, with courses set to have fees double. Social work and human services education needs to be supported and funded, and social work academic staff need to be offered ongoing and secure employment.

This will ensure a strong foundation for child protection, locking in training for aspiring social workers and bringing a vibrant social service sector into the future.

It will ensure children are put first.

Jack Whitney is NSW president-elect of the Australian Association of Social Workers.

Published in The Canberra Times.

AASW - Australian Association of Social Workers