Maintaining the mental health of child protection practitioners

Maintaining the mental health of child protection practitioners

19 June 2018

We highlight some of the key findings of a recent report that examined the mental health of child protection practitioners in Victoria.

Child protection practitioners (CPPs) are struggling to maintain good mental health in their current work environments, according to a recent report published by the Victorian Auditor-General’s Office. 

The Victorian Auditor-General’s Office examined whether CPPs are maintaining good mental health and wellbeing, and determined in an audit that there are a number of factors impacting on CPPs’ mental health, including role-based and organisational-based risks. The report, Maintaining the Mental Health of Child Protection Practitioners, provides recommended strategies to increase support to CPPs in order to more effectively maintain their mental health and wellbeing, so that they can provide improved outcomes for children and families in the Victorian child protection system.

Mental health risks in the frontline work environment

CPPs are employed in the service of protecting children and young people from abuse and neglect in Victoria.

The report notes that practitioners, as frontline workers, are regularly exposed to mental and emotional stress at work, often in highly complex scenarios requiring specialised skillsets and in roles that can attract intense scrutiny. The report acknowledged that CPPs are required to have an expert understanding of child development, trauma, family violence and intergenerational disadvantage. Practitioners must balance these complex sets of factors when responding to individual cases of reported child abuse or neglect, which contributes to the overall pressure of the role they perform. The report noted that CPPs are exposed to a range of role-based mental health risks, including:

  • Long and unpredictable working hours
  • Repeated exposure to trauma, violence and, on occasion, death of a client
  • Difficult interactions with the public
  • High professional expectations (including from the broader community, media and other professions).

Occupational health and safety considerations

The Victorian Auditor-General’s Office’s audit also considered a range of occupational health and safety risks that impact the health and wellbeing of CPPs, including the roles of various government agencies that have responsibility to ensure safe working conditions. The Occupational Health and Safety Act 2004 (Vic.) requires that organisations fulfil a duty of care to their workers by providing a work environment without risk to employee health (so far as is reasonably practical), which includes psychological health. The audit identified various psychosocial risks to CPPs’ mental health associated with the organisational environment. These include:

  • Lack of organisational support for mental health management
  • Rising stress levels
  • Persistent high CPP turnover
  • Unrealistic work demands.

Audit outcome

The audit identified that practitioner mental health is primarily impacted by what is considered to be unreasonable workloads. The audit highlighted understaffing as an issue, with the demand on the Victorian child protection system exceeding the capacity of the CPP workforce – between 2009–2016, the system saw a 121% increase in child protection reports and a 42% increase in the CPPs’ average allocated caseloads. 

The report notes that unreasonable workloads, including an ‘increased administrative burden’ on practitioners, impact on CPPs’ work–life balance and good mental health. The report acknowledged that limited resources have had a negative impact on the delivery of protective services.

Summary of recommendations

In response to the role-based and organisational-based risks identified, Maintaining the Mental Health of Child Protection Practitioners provides a range of strategies to address the negative impact on the mental health of CPPs, and recommends:

  • Assessing current risks to the mental health of the CPP workforce due to unreasonable workloads
  • Establishing a holistic view of CPP mental health
  • Determining the efficacy of current mental health support tools
  • Establishing and consistently providing specialist mental health services for CPPs
  • Ensuring that CPPs are aware of the mental health services available and the processes in place for raising mental health concerns.

These strategies build upon the Child Protection Workforce Strategy 2017–2020 implemented by the Victorian Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) earlier this year. DHHS has also developed an action plan in response to the report’s recommendations (see pages 76–80).

Further reading and related resources

References

State Government of Victoria. (2018). Mental health and wellbeing charter. Melbourne: State Government of Victoria. 

State of Victoria, Department of Health and Human Services. (2018). Child protection workforce strategy 2017–2020. Melbourne: State of Victoria, Department of Health and Human Services.

Victorian Auditor-General’s Office. (2018). Maintaining the mental health of child protection practitioners. Melbourne: Victorian Auditor-General’s Office.

Comments

The recommendations are a welcome guide for child protection agencies across the country. However, I do worry that the emphasis is on 'cure', rather than 'prevention'. While addressing the mental health impacts of excessive workloads will deliver some benefits, should there not be assessment of how to reduce excessive workloads? Would a holistic view of CPP mental health include executive responsibilities to improve their systems, reduce bureaucracy and support their teams? We can all do more to support frontline workers, and middle management, in their work, but I fear such emphasis might reinforce a type of victim-blaming, when CPP are the recipients of poor governance, policy and leadership at higher levels.
Jack Davenport

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Authors

Nicole Paterson

Nicole is a Research Officer with the Child Family Community Australia (CFCA) information exchange.

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