The Brumby government is facing a fresh child-protection crisis on the eve of the state election, with bureaucrats inside the Department of Human Services’ Court Advocacy Unit rebelling against the department’s conditions and alleging several serious breaches of the Occupational Health and Safety Act.

The 25-person unit, which provides legal representation to front-line child-protection workers in the Children’s Court, is up in arms over unrelenting stress and sickness caused by the government’s apparent failure to properly resource their work on behalf of the state’s most vulnerable children.

On Wednesday, a DHS solicitor and OHS representative issued acting-legal services director Kirsty McIntyre with a Worksafe Provisional Improvement Notice, listing a litany of stress and sickness complaints, and claiming her colleagues are unable to deal with recent changes to court processes.

Under section 21 of the OHS Act, the solicitor stated that a “high workload”, “severe under-staffing” and the “significant pressure of dealing with cases” had led to an intolerable situation inside the unit’s Lonsdale Street offices, where tensions have been running high. The notice also cited huge pressure from the Children’s Court staff to prepare cases and “to act in the interests of the child when inadequately resourced to do so”.

Under a separate “sickness” notice, the solicitor wrote that the unit’s high workload had led to a “high amount of sick leave…leaving ‘healthy’ staff to have to cover others’ workloads”. The statement also drew attention to the pernicious effect of “reading and dealing with sensitive and disturbing information” that was having a “detrimental effect on staff mental and physical health”.

The department has until next Thursday to comply with the notice before WorkSafe intervenes and potentially issues its own notice. Sources have suggested that several of the charges levelled at the department are serious enough to be upheld.

The child-protection system has become a noose around the neck of community services minister Lisa Neville, with the Brumby government struggling to implement the recommendations of a devastating 2009 Victorian Ombudsman’s report that exposed the failings and bungles besetting the system. The report specifically referred to the processes of the Court Advocacy Unit, saying that front-line child-protection workers were often granted inadequate representation to assist them through bitterly fought and emotional legal proceedings.

In his report, the Ombudsman highlighted serious issues with the adversarial system for Children’s Court proceedings, and expressed scepticism “as to whether sufficient legal support was provided by the department to enable child-protection workers to present cases to the best of their ability.” The Ombudsman also questioned “the quality of the department’s legal representation”.

Under changes to the lawyers’ work system highlighted in the notice, clients are often serviced on an emergency or “triage” model, in contrast to ordinary litigation where a solicitor manages the case from start to finish.

Crikey understands that the latest grievances came to a head after several departing lawyers weren’t replaced, with senior bureaucrats citing budgetary limitations.

While front-line child-protection staff regularly highlight the perilous nature of their daily work, the issuing of an WorkSafe notice inside the legal area of the department is said to be a rare occurrence.

In June, the Victorian Law Reform Commission published its own scathing report into the system, noting “anecdotal evidence about high turnover in DHS lawyers”.

On the election trail, the government announced the recruitment of an extra 80 front-line child-protection workers to add to a previous commitment of 100 new workers to plug the gaps in the system and ring fence the beleaguered minister’s prospects in her seat of Bellarine, which she holds by 7.9%.

A spokeswoman for the minister, Rebecca Tucker, issued the following emailed statement this morning following Crikey‘s queries, but called back after our deadline to suggest the Department, and not the minister, was the appropriate body to quote in relation to the allegations:

“The Department acted immediately and is working closely with staff in the unit to address their issues of concern. Some actions have been agreed to and further meetings are scheduled for next week.

“Child protection work is complex and case workers and legal staff deal with very serious and confronting cases every day.

“The Government will continue to back and support all staff who work in this challenging and important area.”

Jim Walton, assistant branch secretary of the Community and Public Sector Union said he was “happy to work with the government if they are serious”. However, the problems in the system were due to chronic underfunding, Walton said.

Peter Fray

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