By ERWIN CHLANDA
The death on August 6 of a work mate, believed to have been suicide, prompted several staff members of the Department of Children and Families (DCF, image from their website at right) to tell the Alice Springs News Online about serious conflicts in the local office.
They also refer to the suicide of an ex-staffer about two years ago.
The comments coincide with the Prime Minister’s appointment of a Royal Commission into detention of young people in the NT which will also examine the child protection system.
DCF said about the death on August 6 that it “extends its condolences to the family, friends and colleagues during this difficult time. As this is a personal matter, the Department has no further comment.”
The suspected suicide occurred a few days after the staff member was seen crying in the office.
One of our sources says that the CEO from Darwin flew to Alice to address the staff about the tragic event, and managers have told staff that talking amongst each other, or to outsiders about the death would be “disrespectful”.
“The department in Alice Springs is toxic, retributive, and unless you’re part of that repressive gang you’re in trouble,” says that source.
There is a massive turnover and “destruction” of staff: To survive, “they keep their heads down, their mouth shut and work as hard as they can to get out of this place.”
“Leaders” have strategies which put staff into no-win situations: They are given case management deadlines which are unrealistic and unachievable and the inevitable failure to meet these deadlines is recorded in the staff files.
If a staff member then wants to apply for transfer to another department, this information can be given to the interview panel, which can also obtain references from members of the “inner circle” –the DCF team leaders who are in a position to put damaging information before the panel.
“This hugely constrains getting work elsewhere,” says the source. That in turn binds the lower level staff to the DCF and increases their vulnerability to bullying and exploitation.
The fact that few complaints are lodged – almost exclusively because of fear of retribution, say our sources – is commonly cited by the upper echelons as proof that there are no problems.
DCF says it “has a cultural organisational framework that outlines the core values of respect, courage, integrity and trust that underpin behaviour in the workplace.
“The department values and invests in its staff and any complaint is taken seriously and investigated.
“The Department encourages staff that may be experiencing difficulties to report their concerns and utilise the support services offered.
“If you are aware of any staff that may have a complaint or concern, please direct them to any manager or Department of Children and Families complaints.”
But our source says use of ‘divide and conquer’ methods are standard in this “very punitive organisation”, isolating people and groups: “Different groups are called together and given bits of information and then are being told not to talk about it to other staff,” says the contact.
“Yelling at staff, imposing unreasonable workloads, isolating staff, spreading rumours, encouraging them not to engage with particular workers who are a ‘bad influence,’ putting people down, talking to them like to a school-child, rolling eyes, dressing someone down in a public forum, wagging finger, eye glaring” are all in the arsenal of the “oppressive clique,” says the source.
“Stifling debate amongst the staff by declaring matters confidential, discouraging workers from having support people with them when they are in a performance management meeting, or pretending it is a case management meeting in which a support person would not be needed” are among of the strategies.
While the massive staff turnover is expensive in financial terms, the costs to the clients – the children – is inestimable. While it is vital that the case workers build up a relationship of trust and understanding, the 400-odd children in The Centre who have been taken away from their families are faced with three or four different case workers in a year.
Payments of up to $1000 a week per child are being made to carers, says our source, money that could be spent on helping parents to set up a functioning household.
Almost all clients are Indigenous but are placed with non-Indigenous carers which, by law [Care and Protection of Children Act 2007] should be a measure of last resort, and priority should be given to their placement with responsible kin, says the source.
Infrequent “supervised access” by parents or relatives, constrained by the inadequate number of DCF case workers, leads to children not seeing their families for long periods.
The News has obtained information from five current or recent DCF staff members to date, speaking to them personally.
Two more of them also use the word “toxic” to describe the atmosphere in the Alice Springs DCF office (pictured).
They say “bullying, favouritism and racism” hamper the vital work of people some of whom have the power and duty to take children away from their parents.
Many of the issues are petty, but as they amount to ongoing harassment of about half the 80-odd people working for the local DCF office, they cause tensions, mistrust and backstabbing which is leading to staff turnover.
Two other contacts described the turnover as “disgusting, horrific”.
One said “they have emptied out the assessment and investigation team. There is hardly anyone in that position right now”.
The case load of up to 90 is beyond the reasonable capacity of any staff, with the ideal number considered to be 16.
There are carers who are not or inadequately registered working under “half baked registration”.
Denigrating people behind their backs, or even in their presence, in conversation with other staff members, falsifying workers’ statements in reports and “ganging up” on workers is common, said the two staff members, speaking independently from the others.
People from other countries are manipulated into submission because an adverse report may lead to the cancellation of their visas.
The two say the department has been given complaints about abusive, insulting and offensive language, unjustified criticism and setting unreasonable timelines and expectations.
They say a senior manager speaks to some staff with “a soft tone of voice” with “a friendly body language and facial expressions” in contrast to the “directive tone of voice” and display of “facial expressions of feelings of discomfort and disgust” towards others.
The News will not be disclosing the identities of our contacts. We have offered comprehensive right of reply to the department, and will report any further responses in updates. We are quoting here all comments made by the DCF so far after we had acquainted them with the allegations made so far.
By ERWIN CHLANDA