WHEN child protection was tipped off that Melissa's boyfriend was getting drunk and hitting her, they took her little boy away.
Where she lives in Morwell, her story is not unique. Among her friends, it is normal for child protection to be involved in their lives. "I have a lot of friends in the same situation," she says. She is only 19. Her son is not yet two.
She thinks about 10 of her friends have lost their children to the system — a system that failed to intervene sooner to help them. Some are her high school friends and many of the pregnancies, like hers, were unplanned. The themes are the same — hooking up with a man who is bad news. Alcohol mingling with violence. Finally, child protection turns up at your door.
Amid the pretty lakes and mountains and vineyards of Gippsland lies a sad story of entrenched disadvantage passed on through the generations. Families that are already vulnerable need just a trigger to end up in the system that everyone wants to avoid.
The consequence is that Gippsland's child protection service is the state's busiest. Last year, it received 16.4 reports per 1000 children aged under 17 — double the rate across the state of 8.1 per 1000 children.
As the rate of unallocated cases in the region at one point soared beyond 60 per cent, the urgency of the situation prompted an unprecedented State Government overseas recruitment campaign of child protection workers specifically for Gippsland. About 38, mainly from Britain, will start by February. The question is, will they stay? Child protection reports grew 13 per cent to more than 4400 in Gippsland last financial year. Exhausted workers could no longer bear it. The turnover rate jumped from 11 per cent to 20 per cent in about 18 months. Those who remained watched their workload become unmanageable. At one point, one worker had 44 cases. Even with the best of intentions, they could not do everything.
Melissa has left the man who used to beat her, is renting a house, and trying to get her son back. Ask her why child protection is involved in so many lives in Gippsland, and she replies: "There’s too much freedom. People get away with so much down here."
She says some of the young men drink because they are bored — they dropped out of school and can't find work and have nothing better to do. The school retention rate for years 10 to 12 in Gippsland is 75.1 per cent, compared with 80.9 per cent across the state — although the Education Department says Gippsland is the highest region in the state for students taking up apprenticeships and traineeships and the highest rural region for completing TAFE certificate IV level and above.
"A big part of the issue is entrenched unemployment," says Trish McCluskey, regional director of Berry Street in Gippsland. "A lot of people lost hope, and they lost incentive, because if you did go to school where are you going to get a job?"
Parts of Gippsland, such as Traralgon, are thriving. It is sections of the Latrobe Valley — such as Morwell and Moe where unemployment is higher than 7 per cent — and parts of East Gippsland such as Sale and Bairnsdale that are feeling the brunt of disadvantage.
Working against the region are its vastness and remoteness. It can take about eight hours to drive from one end of the region at Phillip Island to the other at the NSW border, says Jane Anderson, the regional director in Gippsland for Anglicare. How can families get help when, in some parts, they can’t get public transport? "If they don’t have a car it’s not even possible for them to get to anything."
The system is supposed to help families keep their children. But often, the support doesn’t get to them in time. "They then move to the more pointy end where we grab them later when issues are much more difficult," says Kilmany UnitingCare chief executive John Lawrence.
It is an issue the Department of Human Services is all too aware of as it tries to plug holes in its workforce. "The kind of supports that are available to say, 'I need help' are not there in every nook and cranny," concedes Val Callister, DHS regional director in Gippsland.
She thinks the rise in workload is partly about greater community awareness and a change in legislation that put a greater focus on babies at risk before they are born. "It’s just a stressful thing to be poor, and that plays out in anger," she says.
A few months ago, "contingency" staff were brought in to Gippsland to help fill the void. This helped to bring down the unallocated cases rate to 39 per cent, which is still far too high. When all the vacancies are filled, it is hoped the rate will drop to 5 per cent. The new workers should also bring down the workload — which is at present about 18 cases per worker — to a more manageable eight to 10.
One overseas recruit, Wiremu Hewitt, came from New Zealand to Gippsland a year ago. He was attracted to the rural lifestyle. Ms Callister hopes that by recruiting people like him who specifically want to live in country areas, and helping them to settle in, they will stay.
But some, like Mr Lawrence, are not convinced workers will stay. He says the vastness of Australia makes rural life in Victoria very different to rural life in England. "They have this vision of blue skies and everyone is wonderful, but in Gippsland you can’t get your lattes everywhere," he says.
Still, there are those who left Gippsland and came back. Ms McCluskey grew up there and left for 30 years before returning a year ago. "The difficulty of being able to go on to university is what made me leave, but the decency of country people and the sense of community is what got me back."
*Melissa is not the real name.
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