Caseworkers walk off job, unable to save at-risk kids

A critical shortage of child protection workers in NSW has prompted hundreds to walk off the job as they call for urgent intervention to save an increasing number of children at risk of serious harm.

Caseworkers protested across multiple sites on Wednesday, calling for the state government to recruit an additional 500 child protection workers to fix the embattled sector they say is on the verge of collapse.

There were 256 vacancies in the workforce at the end of 2023, meaning the government will also have to fund new positions to meet the proposed figure.

Child protection workers have walked off the job.
Child protection workers have walked off the job calling for urgent recruitment of more staff. (Supplied/AAP PHOTOS)

At the end of 2023, 113,688 children were at risk of significant harm, according to figures from the NSW Department of Communities and Justice.

But only one in four children received a visit from a caseworker.

The children who are being seen by caseworkers are the most serious cases and will likely be removed from their families due to staffing inadequacies that limit early intervention, the Public Service Association of NSW says.

The cost of placing a child in emergency care can be upwards of $2 million a year, the union's secretary Stewart Little said.

But overworked and understaffed caseworkers are often unable to even get to families to help in time.

"They can't even get to these children to try and save them ... and we don't want to see tragedies unfold before us," he told AAP.

"The most vulnerable children in NSW are at risk of serious harm, or even worse, because child protection caseworkers are chronically understaffed and exhausted."

Mr Little said at-risk kids end up neglected, turning towards crime and ultimately in the correctional system.

Caseworkers left the job at a rate of roughly two per week in 2023.

More than one-quarter of the vacancies were in the mid-north coast, New England and northern NSW districts, where caseworkers managed to see only 15 per cent of at-risk children by the end of 2023.

Those who remain working in the system are reporting chronic understaffing and burnout.

The union wants an end to privatised foster care it says operates under "perverse financial incentives".

Families and Communities Minister Kate Washington was unable to answer how many caseworkers would be recruited by the end of the year but she conceded more needed to be done.

Families and Communities Minister Kate Washington.
Families and Communities Minister Kate Washington agrees the child protection system is broken. (Bianca De Marchi/AAP PHOTOS)

"I've heard that they are trying to work in a broken system ... I've heard them and I agree with them," she told parliament.

"We need to significantly reform this system and we know that any reforms that we undertake will rely entirely on attracting and retaining high quality caseworkers."

But Mr Little said the government has done little to consult with the sector, saying he was "astonished" people at the coalface were not spoken with ahead of the announcement of an emergency domestic violence funding package earlier in the week.

He will meet with Women's Minister Jodie Harrison later on Wednesday.

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