Friday, January 2, 2015

Social Work, Child Protection and FSA Chief Executive

Which one of the three areas in the title don't belong? The answer is "FSA Chief Executive". A couple of weeks ago I had the opportunity to meet with the new Chief Executive of FamiliesSA. This became one of the most humiliating and distressing moments I have ever experienced. I attended this meeting with an open mind about a man I had never met and knew nothing about. In my usual naive state I believed that he was going to hear what we had to say with an open mind and with a spirit of co-operation. Four of us were present at the meeting which was organised by a friend who was a long serving FSA employee. He began the meeting by talking about his experiences working with FSA and what this meant to him. I was the next to speak. My "agenda" was to seek some clarification over a current issue concerning being ignored and prevented from accessing information that my client had asked me to attain. What I needed clarified was the role of Advocates according to the new CE. I mentioned the issue that confronted me the previous week and the worker and office concerned. Mr Etienne Scheepers began an attack which took me and the others in the group by utter surprise. He accused me of having an "agenda". Clearly this man doesn't have an agenda when he attends meetings. The hypocrisy here is that he clearly had an "agenda". He had made up his mind that he was going to attack me and exert his authority from the moment I spoke. He accused me of "setting him up" and boxing him into a corner. He raised his voice and he was plainly intimidating. I was so stunned that I didn't know what to say. I was feeling very emotional because the attack was so venomous and uncalled for. I was in a state of shock and for ten minutes sat there feeling humiliated, denigrated and tearful in front of my friends. I eventually explained that I had to leave because I was feeling so emotional.

My friend came and retrieved me at the lifts and suggested that I return to the meeting, which I did. At the end of the meeting Mr Scheepers asked for sometime for me to respond to what had happened earlier and to his credit he did offer an apology. Unfortunately the damage had been done and it was a little like slapping someone around and then saying they are sorry for how that made you feel. Well, don't slap me in the first place. Once a person has demonstrated disrespectful behaviour whatever follows is often meaningless, and that is how it was for me. The apology didn't diminish how I felt.

As I have mentioned in previous posts the battle with my colleagues in Child Protection has been ongoing but on this occasion it was as if all the abuse and crap I had been dealing with for so many years came down on top of me like a mud-slide of abuse. At no point have I been abusive of my colleagues or denigrated them in any way. I have always focused on practice issues and behaviours which were inappropriate. My intention has been to improve practice so that Children and Parents have better outcomes. It isn't very complicated.

In the past I have worked very harmoniously with David Waterford. There were times when David and I would disagree vehemently but we always respected each other. At no point did I ever feel disrespected by David nor any of his management team. David employed the strategy that it was better to keep your enemies close. The dialogue David and I had was always about what is in the best interest of the parents and children I was representing. Even though we may disagree on practice issues he and later Rosemary Whitten, would at least listen. However I have come to realise that Mr Scheepers is not one of those who is prepared to listen because he has already made up his mind who I am and that, for unknown reasons I am definitely the "enemy" and it is his job to ensure that I know my place.

Mr Scheepers, what you and many of your colleagues don't understand is that I do this work because I believe in the role of Social Workers to ensure that the most vulnerable people in our community have a voice. I now know Mr Scheepers that you consider Social Workers to be no more than "Support Workers". This was your definition not mine which makes me wonder whether you consider Social Workers who work for you in the same way. He worked very hard to diminish who I was as a Social Worker which indicates an underlying prejudice against the very profession which provides the service his organisation delivers.

Unlike David Waterford I know that I am not ever going to be heard by Mr Scheepers. This is rather unfortunate because it changes the rules. In the past David tolerated me because it diverted my complaints about practice to his office and avoided 'Ministerial's". From this moment on, because of Mr Scheepers abusive behaviour, I have decided to work with all advocates to establish a consistent and relentless approach that will apply continual pressure for change. I have decided that we will work more closely with the media considering cases which are news worthy. Because Mr Scheepers has chosen to take an aggressive approach we will be establishing strategies which will be more politically aligned. I have been more than comfortable discussing my concerns every couple of months with someone from FSA but clearly this avenue is no longer available. None of this is my preferred option. If my clients no longer have a voice through negotiations with colleagues or management then I have to accept that they will need to be heard through other means.

I am confused as to why a lawyer who knows nothing about Social Work, the very profession that delivers your services, can provide the leadership required? It is like having a lawyer president of the AMA. Clearly the intent is to have someone at the top who can ride out the scandals which plague the organisation. It is going to be easy for him to declare that these scandals were not on his watch. It is going to be interesting to see how he responds when the next one occurs, and as long as there is no change to practice, there will be others.


  1. Tony there need to be more people like you advocating for those in our community without a voice.

    The appointment of Etienne Scheepers to this position is a mistake, which I thought back when I read the press about it - "Etienne Scheepers is an outstanding public administrator who has a proven track record in implementing complex reforms that improve the level of services provided to the public," it was said.

    Interpret the government speak there and you can see it is simply an appointment of a person who can hide the mistakes better.

    Until FSA is run by people who are not government toadies, and truly care about the people they are supposed to be protecting (not persecuting) then nothing will change.
    You are an inspiration, and I hope you raise your voice louder to protect the poor and damaged in society.

    It seems that FSA is at best a mishmash of individuals, and at worst a damaged unit. Change has to come from the top, with systems in place. It won't with this person at the helm. Unfortunately the government is only concerned with how they look while they are in term. Until they get their act together, it will be left up to individuals such as yourself to keep them on their toes.

    There needs to be more mainstream media reporting on cases showing the real perspective, so that FSA can't hide their crap any longer. Don't give up the fight.

    Something truly has to change. It seems obvious that nothing will change from the top down, so maybe changes from the ground up will get them moving.

  2. Thank you for your response. I am concerned about the direction FSA is taking under Etienne, however at the end of the day it would take a very courageous individual to take step outside of the Child Protection norms. I am hoping that in my life time we will see a creative leader who will understand that to engage with people we have to like them and want to help them.