It has been another extraordinarily busy week for everyone in the sector as we all collectively grapple with how we can best support the children, young people and families we serve, along with keeping our staff safe and supported.
ACWA's dedicated COVID-19 Response Team continues to work closely with the Department of Communities and Justice (DCJ), other non-government peaks – including AbSec and NCOSS – and agencies from across our child and family sector, to address some of the key challenges brought to our attention over recent weeks.
Throughout the crisis and beyond, we will remain committed to ensuring that our members have access to up-to-date advice and practical support. With this in mind, we have provided this update on ACWA's various initiatives over the past week.
Ongoing communications by DCJ with the sector
Consistent with ACWA's advocacy role, we have helped to facilitate ongoing discussions between DCJ and foster care and residential/ITC care providers, relating to significant issues impacting these services at this time.
The ACWA COVID-19 Response Team has also had regular discussions with DCJ about the following issues:
Children and young people in Alternative Care Arrangements
We saw a spike at the end of March in the number of Alternative Care Arrangements (ACAs), which aligned with the increased COVID-19 restrictions. The numbers had increased to 130 – from the steady rate recorded in the prior six weeks of around 118-120. However, by 2 April, the dashboard showed that the numbers had come back down to 127 (80 for DCJ and 47 for NGOs). It is worth noting that as 7 children had exited without being notified, the unofficial figure is 120. Susan Priivald is continuing to work hard with member agencies and the sector to prevent another spike in ACA placements.
Vulnerable children and communities
A number of providers, peaks and other non-government organisations have expressed an interest in meeting to discuss opportunities for collaboration at this time, in the delivery of services to vulnerable children and young people living with their families in local communities.
This approach to ACWA has arisen against the background of the closure of a large number of community facilities, as well as changes within school settings. Service providers have emphasised the enormous challenges faced by already struggling families who, in many cases, lack secure accommodation, reliable internet access, smartphones/devices and/or community transportation. In addition, many of the agencies who have approached us were delivering face-to-face programs to vulnerable families and, as a result of the current environment, they have skilled and trained staff who are currently under-utilised.
In response, ACWA has arranged a meeting (on April 7) with those who have approached us, to explore some of the key service delivery challenges in meeting the needs of vulnerable families at this time, as well as identifying promising initiatives already underway, or at least under consideration. We will provide you with a summary of what comes out of this meeting.
Ongoing work with My Forever Family to ensure foster carers are supported and trained, and to expedite potential carer assessments
My Forever Family (MFF) is focusing on ways that it can ensure they support existing carers through this period, and also assist the sector with the process of on-boarding potential new carers. In this regard, ACWA has been in discussion with MFF about the following issues:
Carer support as a priority
- The provision of accessible and streamlined health and safety training to foster carers and children and young people at this time.
- Ways to reach carers with supplementary support information who are not yet registered with MFF.
New potential carers on their authorisation journey
- How to increase the authorisation of potential carers from the referrals and enquiries stage (particularly those already part way through the journey). Some of this work has already occurred, with the sector looking at the streamlining of this process.
ACWA has indicated that we are keen to consider any proposals from MFF relating to these important issues, while also flagging that, in order for these kind of initiatives to be effective, they would need to be co-designed with, and embraced by, foster care and other relevant agencies.
Infection control training/Work Health and Safety guidelines
In past weeks, ACWA has sought to advise the sector about the training and guidance available on COVID-19 related issues (such as infection control) released by the federal government.
In addition, the ACWA/PSP Taskforce has been working on tailored scenarios to assist Justice Connect deliver a webinar on the WHS/legal issues that residential and foster care providers are currently facing due to COVID-19. This webinar is now ready to go, and will be hosted this Thursday, April 9, between 3-3:30pm. Click here to register.
Following concerns raised with us by both member agencies and the Australian Services Union (ASU), ACWA has also been strongly advocating for more customised WHS training and guidance for the residential care sector. Our aim is to provide workers with, among other things, more detailed advice on infection control practice in the context of the particular children and young people who our agencies are serving in residential care settings.
In terms of our advocacy on this issue, ACWA is close to reaching an agreement with DCJ concerning the imminent engagement of a firm that has already produced well regarded COVID-19 response material. In fact, we expect that work will commence this week on producing relevant guidelines and a webinar, for rapid completion and rollout. ACWA will also be seeking to produce supplementary training material based on the proposed guidelines.
Business Continuity Plans – not reinventing the wheel
To assist member agencies, we will also be circulating several detailed Business Continuity Plans (BCPs) that providers have shared with us. ACWA appreciates the desire by these larger agencies to share their resources with us for the benefit of their colleagues in the sector.
Protective Personal Equipment
Agencies have consistently raised concerns about the limited supply of Protective Personal Equipment (PPE) to high risk areas of the sector. In response, ACWA has kept the issue of PPE supplies on the agenda in its ongoing discussions with DCJ. We will continue to keep you updated on this issue.
Identifying emergency accommodation options
An important issue for the ACWA response team relates to assisting with service continuity in the residential care sector when COVID-19 cases are confirmed or suspected. On this issue, a number of member agencies have shared with us detailed descriptions of potential emergency accommodation models that could be employed, particularly if COVID-19 related issues impact on the residential care workforce of individual residential care providers.
However, as all residential care agencies are acutely aware, these emergency accommodation models can have related industrial, WHS, and taxation implications associated with their implementation. As part of meeting these challenges, we commenced discussions with the ASU to ensure that we have their input into, and support for, whatever options are ultimately developed. DCJ has been kept apprised of developments at all times, and has indicated its support for the sector exploring a range of emergency options.
In addition, the ASU has signalled that it is keen to work with the residential care sector on developing a set of guiding principles to inform the ongoing development of emergency options during this crisis, including ensuring that any options are socialised with local agency workers.
To move these discussions forward, the ASU offered to conduct, with the OOHC residential sector, a similar process to what it had already commenced with the disability sector nationally. This includes obtaining assistance from the Fair Work Commission (FWC) on a fast-tracked process for exploring the accommodation needs of the residential care sector via a ‘cooperative and collaborative workplace’ mechanism that aims to avoid industrial disputes.
Pleasingly, the FWC agreed to meet with the parties (ASU/ACWA) urgently, and this took place last Friday. ACWA also arranged for DCJ representatives to participate in the discussion as an interested stakeholder. There was consensus about the key issues that needed to be worked through during the negotiation process, and the overall goals both parties were seeking to achieve. An urgent timetable was settled with the FWC, with two additional meetings booked in for this week.
To enhance ACWA's representation of the sector during the FWC process, we obtained approval from the Deputy President to have two member agencies support ACWA during this process – one from ACWA’s Board and the other from the Children in Care Collective.
Using an interests-based approach, both parties will work together to establish agreed principles between ACWA and the ASU in responding to the COVID-19 crisis. These principles will then be used to work up a range of options later in the week, to help ensure continuity of service in the OOHC residential sector that is both responsive and safe. During this week, we will also be seeking advice from the residential care sector to ensure that, as far as practical, the FWC process is informed by advice from expert practitioners.
ATO letter of comfort
Following on from ACWA's meeting last week with DCJ and the ATO, the ATO provided DCJ with a 'letter of comfort' for the residential care sector, which was distributed last Thursday. This letter aims to support the NSW Office of the Children’s Guardian’s recent notification permitting the authorisation of staff to provide foster care in the current environment. We are currently exploring certain technical aspects of this letter.
DCJ Emergency Payments Form
This week, DCJ released a Complex Needs, Payment Application Form to support providers that may incur extraordinary costs due to having to take emergency measures to respond to a COVID-19 outbreak.
In response, ACWA provided feedback that several factors that DCJ has indicated it 'may' use 'in making (its) assessments' of funding applications, are problematic. In particular, the expectations that funding applications should conform with a ‘shared understanding’ of the relevant provider’s BCP, as well as complying with its industrial obligations.
Regarding these factors, we firstly noted that, for many or most agencies (and for understandable reasons), there would currently be no 'shared understanding' between the agency and DCJ concerning the provider's BCP measures. Secondly, we noted that, in the current circumstances, where there is uncertainty concerning critical workforce and broader industrial obligations – and a number of these obligations are about to be explored with the FWC – this uncertainty should have been acknowledged in the document. In light of our concerns, we have suggested that DCJ review the form's content and seek to provide the sector with clarifying advice.
However, despite ACWA’s willingness to raise with DCJ issues of concern, we also recognise that, along with our NGO member agencies, DCJ is seeking to provide urgent assistance to agencies in a very difficult and a rapidly changing environment. From our perspective, we are committed to working with our member agencies, DCJ and other stakeholders on seeking to identify and implement solutions, as opposed to just focusing on problems.
Residential care sector fact sheet
ACWA gave feedback on this fact sheet, and noted that while it contained some sound advice, it needed to provide more practical guidance for agencies, including on some of the more challenging issues such as how to do deal with non-compliant behaviour of clients. We have also indicated that the various BCPs provided to us by the sector could be mined for additional practical advice to enhance the document. DCJ has also sought advice from NSW Health on the accuracy of the guidance contained in this fact sheet. Our unfolding work in the WHS training area (discussed above) should help further refine this fact sheet advice.
We want your feedback
If you have any COVID-related feedback or matters that you would like ACWA to address, please continue to forward them to us via our designated COVID-19 email address: firstname.lastname@example.org
Please also keep checking our dedicated COVID-19 webpage for the latest information, advice and resources on issues critical to the sector.
Our CCWT team is also working hard to develop online solutions to ensure the training and development needs of our sector continue to be supported throughout this period. Please contact: email@example.com for your training enquiries.