Child protection workers and occupational violence
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The challenges of the Australian child protection system have been well chronicled in the academic literature, mainstream media and numerous reviews, commissions and inquiries. While these have, rightly, focused on the harms experienced by children, the voice of frontline child protection workers is largely missing from these discussions.
In Australia, statutory child protection is undertaken by state or territory departments that investigate and make determinations around child protection cases. Although the evidence is limited, research to date indicates that these workers may be subject to high levels of violence (e.g. Briggs, Broadhurst & Hawkins, 2004). Violence can be understood as including physical and sexual assault, threats and intimidation, emotional abuse, and other strategies of coercion and control (Pease, 2015). Further exploration is need to understand workers’ own welfare and how this may impact on the children they work to protect.
What does the research say?
An Australian study published in 2004 examined abuse and intimidation experienced by people who work with children across multiple sectors (including social workers, teachers, lawyers, police and health professionals). This study found that 91% of respondents had experienced intimidating behaviour and 72% had been threatened with violence (Briggs, Broadhurst, & Hawkins, 2004). The study also identified that, at times, organisational responses to reports of violence resulted in bullying, blaming the worker or accepting and normalising the violence as part of the job (Briggs, Broadhurst, & Hawkins, 2004).
These findings are supported by international research. Research in the United Kingdom found that child protection workers commonly experience threats and intimidation, including death threats to themselves and their family members, as well as significant numbers of staff experiencing physical assault (Hunt, Goddard, Cooper, LIttlechild & Wild, 2016). In extreme cases, child protection workers have died or had permanent injuries as a result of violence from service users (Hunt et al., 2016). Harassment and stalking are also common (Hunt et al., 2016). Research from the United Kingdom also suggests that these issues are under-reported to management and local authorities (Littlechild & Bourke, 2006).
The effects of violence on workers and children
Violence has a range of adverse effects on the health and wellbeing of child protection workers (Briggs, Broadhurst and Hawkins, 2004). Violence, particularly threats and intimidation can also form part of a pattern of power and control. This is especially concerning when considering that family violence is a factor in many reports of child abuse. In some cases the perpetrators of family violence may also be attempting to exert similar patterns of power and control over (predominantly female) child protection workers, which can prevent the worker from fully investigating allegations of child abuse and neglect (Littlechild & Bourke, 2006).
A UK review of child abuse death enquiries found that threats of violence against staff had been a factor in child abuse deaths due to the fact that workers were deterred from visiting families (Littlechild & Bourke, 2006). In this way, violence against workers has flow-on effects for the children involved in the child protection system.
Child protection in Australia
In Australia, child protection workers are required to provide services to clients with aggressive behaviour (Victorian Government, 2005), and are at increased risk of violence as they attend the homes of families they work with, usually alone. This risk is heightened when working with clients with a history of unpredictable and violent behaviour or working in isolated and remote areas (Victorian Government, 2005).
Child protection inquiries have recognised the “hazardous” (NSW Parliament, 2017) and “threatening” (Victorian Government, 2012) nature of child protection work, however it is often not spelt out what is meant by this, or concerns about worker welfare are limited to a focus on vicarious or secondary trauma, stress and burnout. These are serious issues that impact the child protection sector and require addressing. The occupational violence experienced by child protection workers requires further exploration to understand the frequency and severity of violence and its impact on child protection workers and children and families in contact with the child protection system.
AIHW. (2016). Child protection Australia 2014-14. Canberra: Australian Institute of Health and Welfare (AIHW).
Briggs, F., Broadhurst, D., & Hawkins, R. (2004). Violence, threats and intimidation in the lives of professionals whose work involves children. Canberra: Australian Institute of Criminology.
Hunt, S., Goddard, C., Cooper, J., Littlechild, B., & Wild, J. (2016). 'If I feel like this, how does the child feel?': Child protection workers, supervision, management and organisational responses to parental violence. Journal of Social Work Practice, 30(1), 5-24.
Littlechild, B., & Bourke, C. (2006). Men’s use of violence and intimidation against family members and child protection workers. In Humphries, C., & Stanley, N. (Eds), Domestic violence and child protection: Directions for good practice. London: Jessica Kingsley Publishers. Pp.203-215
New South Wales Parliament. (2017). Child protection. (Report no. 46). Sydney, New South Wales: New South Wales Parliament. Legislative Council. General Purpose Standing Committee No. 2.
Pease, B. (2015). Critical gender theory, gender inequality and men's violence against women: An Our Watch think piece paper. In Our Watch, Australia's National Research Organisation for Women's Safety (ANROWS), & VicHealth (Eds.), Framework foundations 2: Think pieces, stakeholder consultations, issues, implications and approach. Melbourne, Australia: Our Watch.
Victorian Government. (2005). Staff safety in the workplace: Guidelines for the prevention and management of occupational violence for Victorian Child Protection and community-based Juvenile Justice staff. Melbourne, Victoria: Office for Children, Victorian Government Department of Human Services.
Victorian Government. (2012). Report of the Protecting Victoria’s Vulnerable Children Inquiry. January 2012. Melbourne, Victoria: Department of Premier and Cabinet.