On Friday, 14th September, a mix of over 60 senior operational, policy, human resource and financial managers representing over 30 non-government providers of residential care services gathered at a workshop co-hosted by the Department of Child Safety, Youth and Women and PeakCare – an event that will one day come to represent a milestone in the history of Queensland’s residential care services.

A major focus of the workshop was placed on the transition to new standards concerning the minimum qualifications to be held by residential care workers. The establishment of these standards follow in the footsteps of similar exercises undertaken, most recently, in the early childhood education and care sector, the professionalisation of statutory child protection workers in the late 1970s, and well before that, the establishment of mandatory qualifications for nurses and teachers. Today, there are few who would question the need for persons employed in these occupations to be suitably qualified and educated. It may be assumed that over time public expectations will be firmly planted in the belief that those responsible for caring for the state’s most vulnerable children must also be suitably qualified to perform this role. Indeed in conversations I have with people who work outside of the child protection sector, they typically express surprise and alarm that a minimum level of qualification to engage in residential care work is not already well entrenched.

Portentously, recent widely reported controversy concerning the aged care sector that has prompted the Commonwealth Government’s announcement of a Royal Commission into Aged Care Quality and Safety highlights the general public’s lack of tolerance for sub-standard care being provided to vulnerable members of our society. Without preempting the outcomes of this inquiry, it may be fully expected, as has already been flagged by many commentators, that attention will be focussed on the qualifications that should be held by those charged with the responsibility of caring for the residents of aged care facilities. Much of the public outrage about the quality of aged care has been driven by a deep concern that these elderly residents, and often their loved ones and family members, have not been in a position to have their voices heard about the betrayal of their entitlement to safe and high quality care. The recently concluded Royal Commission into the Institutional Reponses to Child Sexual Abuse highlighted that far too many children and their families have similarly been in this position.

Messages to and responses by governments

The pressure placed on governments in the face of inquiries and often the advocacy of community groups and public outrage that led to these inquiries, is to intervene through use of their powers to regulate and establish service standards that protect the safety, rights and entitlements of those who are vulnerable – be they the elderly, children or any other groups deemed vulnerable. The voting public expects no less of those elected to govern.

Specifically in relation to the new standards concerning the minimum qualifications to be held by residential care workers, the ‘pressure’ placed on the State Government may be regarded as emanating from the Carmody Child Protection Inquiry and two of its recommendations in particular.

Recommendation 10.7 stated that the Family and Child Council (now known as the Queensland Family and Child Commission) lead the development of a workforce planning and development strategy… (and)…. should consider… a staged approach to the introduction of mandatory minimum qualifications for the non-government sector, with particular focus on the residential care workforce.

Recommendation 10.7 is best considered in association with Recommendation 8.7, and recommended the (then) Department of Communities, Child Safety and Disability Services partner with non-government service providers to develop and adopt a trauma-informed therapeutic framework for residential care facilities, supported by joint training and professional development initiatives.

Both recommendations were accepted by the Newman-led LNP Government initially, and then the subsequently elected Palaszczuk Government.

Acceptance of Recommendation 8.7 led to the development of Hope and Healing, a trauma-informed therapeutic framework for residential care that was fully endorsed by the (then) Department of Communities, Child Safety and Disability Services in 2016 and the subsequent roll-out of the Over 1,000 Voices Survey and a series of 2-day workshops held across the state during which residential care workers enthusiastically identified the knowledge and skills that need to be held by workers in being able to successfully implement the framework. In response to the learning needs expressed by these workers, the Hope and Healing Masterclass Series was initiated with ‘sold-out’ attendance at workshops led by Martha Holden and Ian Nussie in several locations throughout the state.

At the workshop held on 14th September, participants were informed about the next phases of the project concerning the training and professional development strategies designed to support residential care providers’ implementation of the Hope and Healing framework including, in particular, the anticipated time frames for 10 Hope and Healing e-learning modules becoming freely accessible to residential care workers. A preview was also provided of one of the already produced 11 podcasts featuring members of the Expert Advisory Group who provided advice and assistance in the development of the Hope and Healing framework, experienced residential care workers and young people who have a lived experience of residential care, that will be linked to the e-learning modules or accessible as a ‘stand-alone’ educational and professional development resource. Advice was also provided about the linkage that has been established, sensibly in PeakCare’s view, between the requirement to hold a recognised qualification and completion of the Hope and Healing e-learning modules. The workshop participants were also given opportunity to recommend other topics to be addressed in an extension of the Hope and Healing Masterclass Series.

With the ten-year roadmap recommended by Carmody now at its half-way point, the Government’s plan for responding to Recommendations 8.7 and 10.7 represents a significant step in the progress of the child protection reform agenda. Far too often the initial flurry of government activity in response to inquiries is short-lived and dissipates over time with the result being that many recommendations do not receive the attention they deserve. PeakCare commends the Queensland Government for maintaining its accountability for the responses it is providing to the Carmody Roadmap including, in particular, Recommendations 8.7 and 10.7.

Messages to and responses by service providers

The pressures placed on non-government service providers in dealing with inquiry recommendations are similar but different to those faced by governments. Most obviously, the challenges include taking the steps necessary to comply with regulatory controls or service standards that may be imposed by a government in response to one or more recommendations. Beyond simply being ‘compliance-driven’ however, there are obligations held by non-government service providers to take note of and appreciate the reasons for inquiry recommendations (such as Recommendations 8.7 and 10.7 of the Carmody Inquiry). Without properly understanding the reasons for and intentions underpinning recommendations, there is a ‘tail wagging the dog’ risk of rules and procedures being clumsily or begrudgingly observed and not skilfully and well implemented in a manner that honours the intentions of the recommendations and truly achieves the desired outcomes.

Moreover, non-government organisations hold responsibilities that are similar to those held by governments, to actively listen to the voices of those who are vulnerable and to remain responsive to their concerns and public expectations. This should not be pursued solely for the purposes of complying with government regulation or standards, but rather it should be driven by an organisation’s own commitment to their mission, values and aspirations concerning the quality of their services.

Preliminary findings of the recently initiated Residential Care Workforce Survey provide clear indication that there are many non-government organisations that fully embrace this approach. The fact that around two-thirds of the overall residential care workforce in Queensland already hold or are working towards attaining one of the recognised qualifications suggests that many organisations, of their own volition, have expended considerable efforts in developing a trained and well-qualified workforce.

The workshop also provided recognition however that for some organisations more than others and in some areas of the state more than others, there are greater challenges being faced by providers of residential care services in facilitating and managing the transition to the new standards. The purpose of the workshop was to identify these challenges and identify the strategies that will be most useful in meeting them. As discussed, this will include, for example, the hosting of a workshop to be conducted by persons with the expertise to deliver advice about navigating the Vocational Education and Training (VET) system and establishing relationships with TAFEs and reputable Registered Training Organisations (RTOs). This was regarded as holding special importance to organisations that are not themselves an RTO or have not yet formed these relationships.

Messages to and responses by residential care workers

The establishment of the new standards serves as an active and tangible recognition of the importance and complexity of the role performed by residential care workers. As has occurred in other fields of human service delivery such as the early childhood and education sector, it will also open up career path opportunities that will benefit not only these workers, but also their employing organisations and the community services sector as a whole.

There is recognition that for some existing workers who may not have experienced tertiary education, the prospect of engaging in study may be daunting. These workers are deserving of support and encouragement in availing themselves of the opportunities that that the new standards will provide to them.

As highlighted during the workshop, it is important to note that the new standards carry implications for not only existing residential care workers, but also future generations of residential care workers who have not yet been employed. In common with the experiences of other sectors such as early childhood education and care, it may be anticipated that the establishment of minimum qualifications will assist in generating people’s interest in pursuing a career in residential care work and in enrolling in courses that qualify them to gain employment in this field, noting also that the Department’s plan allows for the employment of persons who have not yet attained but are in the process of attaining their qualification. In turn, this will carry benefits in meeting some of the challenges being faced by organisations in recruiting staff and increase the likelihood of persons being employed who have already received relevant training and education.

As noted during the workshop, the possession of a qualification does not diminish the importance of having residential care being delivered by persons with the ‘right’ personal attributes. These factors are not mutually exclusive however and even those with these attributes in abundance will generally benefit from the education that accompanies the attainment of a qualification. Indeed, it is usually these workers who are the most enthusiastic about participating in learning and development that will expand their knowledge, refine their skills and assist them to become even better workers.

Messages to and responses by children and young people

During focus groups conducted with young people with a lived experience of residential care in partnership with the CREATE Foundation in developing the Hope and Healing framework, young people provided very fulsome descriptions of the attributes they thought should be held by residential care workers.  This included their strongly stated and clear preference for residential care workers who are properly trained and qualified.

With the introduction of the new standards, the message can now be conveyed to these young people that they were listened to and heard. Isn’t that what this should all be about?

Let’s hope that the Royal Commission into Aged Care Quality and Safety allows the residents of these facilities and their loved ones to be similarly heard. It won’t be long before many of us, some sooner than it will be for others, find out for ourselves.

Let us know your views by entering comments below, over on our Facebook page, or by emailing Lindsay directly at lwegener@peakcare.org.au.

Lindsay Wegener

Executive Director, PeakCare Queensland