Vulnerable children in state care are put at risk, sexually abused and exploited due to inadequate staffing and pressures on the system, agencies have warned.
The warning, in a letter from Victorian residential care providers to Community Services Minister Mary Wooldridge and the Premier, follows a court censuring the secretary of the Department of Human Services, saying she had breached her duty of care for some of the state’s most vulnerable children.
The Centre for Excellence in Child and Family Welfare, writing on behalf of nine of state’s largest residential care providers, demanded an urgent meeting with Ms Wooldridge and Premier Denis Napthine to discuss their concerns.
The centre’s chief executive Deb Tsorbaris said in the letter that a lack of placement options was putting children at risk.
“Feedback could not be clearer: there is a regrettable but direct link between the lack of adequate placement capacity and the sexual abuse and exploitation of vulnerable children in care.”
The letter was signed on behalf of a number of agencies, including Anglicare Victoria, Berry Street, the Victorian Aboriginal Child Care Agency, MacKillop Family Services, the Salvation Army and Wesley Mission Victoria.
Ms Tsorbaris also criticised the “single parent” staffing model, where up to four children are placed with one staff member.
“The staffing model makes it difficult for staff to make sure children get to school or to health appointments as staff cannot leave a child alone in a residential unit.”
The letter coincides with reports that department secretary Gill Callister was criticised at a Children’s Court custody hearing for two siblings who were sexually abused in state care.
The ABC reported on Wednesday that the court heard: “It is clear from the terrible things that have happened to [the children] in care that the secretary is in fundamental breach of her duty of care to each of them.”
The Commissioner for Children and Young People Bernie Geary said legislation governing vulnerable children had not been adhered to for many years and the system was underfunded.
“I am seeing failures right through the system,” he said. “We have not been adhering to legislation for many, many years and it is interesting that the Children’s Court is as specific as this.”
He said the safety of children was everybody’s responsibility.
Ms Wooldridge said the government was reforming out-of-home care to ensure all placements were delivered under a therapeutic model of care, with more staff and better access to specialists including psychologists.
She said the Napthine government had invested more than $900 million in vulnerable children and families over the past four budgets.
“Since coming into government, we have made a concerted effort to reduce the number of children under 12 in residential care, resulting in a 40 per cent reduction. In addition, in this term of government the rate of client-to-client sexual assaults in residential care has halved.”
She said she had confidence in Ms Callister.
Opposition community services and children spokeswoman Jenny Mikakos said children were at risk of further sexual abuse and exploitation if nothing changed.
“Child protection agencies have lost their confidence in Ms Wooldridge, so they’re now going over her head and appealing directly to the Premier.”
Victorian Aboriginal Child Care Agency executive director of services and strategy Connie Salamone said poor placement matching and resourcing had contributed to the high level of sexualised behaviour of children in care.
She said more needed to be done to ensure aboriginal children were connected to their culture and community while in care.
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