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Former residential care worker blows whistle on system that is 'failing' children

Geelong woman Sara Purtill was a passionate artist, but she says three years as a residential care worker at homes run by MacKillop Family Services has destroyed her creativity.

During her time working with some of the state's most vulnerable and damaged children in the Barwon region she said she was threatened with knives, locked in her office as two children tried to set fire to the unit, and is now unable to work due to crippling post-traumatic stress disorder.

But far from blaming the children for her own trauma, Ms Purtill said it was Victoria's residential care system which had failed her and the young people she was employed to care for.

"We've made them like that, society has done it to them," she said. "They haven't done anything wrong, they were born into a family that didn't look after them, but they are treated like the prisoner or the person who has done the harm but they aren't. A lot of people will never see their potential because of it."

The last straw for Ms Purtill came last year when she arrived for her night shift at one of MacKillop's most troubled homes in the Geelong area. She found the small home filled with staff, case managers and MacKillop management, all there for a hastily-arranged working bee.

The reason for all the activity soon became clear. A visit by staff of the Victorian Commissioner for Children and Young People was scheduled for the following day.

Ms Purtill was horrified to discover the new bedding and furniture she had been requesting for months had been purchased for the home, just in time for the visit. "We now had leather furniture and new bedding, the fridge was overflowing with beautiful [food], and I just lost the plot in the office in front of them," she said. "I just said, 'What the hell are you doing, [the Commission] need to see how things are because if we don't acknowledge what's wrong how will we have any change'."

Care system problems first uncovered three years ago

The ABC first revealed the crisis in Victoria's residential care system in 2014, uncovering a system rife with the sexual and physical abuse of children.

In that time, Ms Purtill is the first worker prepared to put their name to their alarming claims about the failures in the system. Disturbingly, she said despite investment by the state Labor government to better fund agencies, young girls at risk of sexual abuse were still being placed in homes with older boys who are known to be sexual predators.

In one case she said a 12-year-old girl with an intellectual disability was put in a home with an older boy who would openly brag about having sex with other girls in care. "I was having to get her up quite early and quietly so I didn't wake others and which was really, really difficult and all of a sudden he starts grooming her and he did it so professionally," Ms Purtill said. "[The girl] started to walk into his room and she was lying on the bed. Within a few minutes he had someone in his room."

Ms Purtill estimates more than 90 per cent of children in care are regular users of the drug ice, and has supported calls for addicted children to be compelled to go into rehab.

"You can use all your skills to diffuse situations, but if you've got kids on ice there is no reasoning," she said. "You can't reason with a child on ice and if they are going into a psychosis all you can do is try and lock yourself in the office and then they'll smash through."

MacKillop Family Services CEO, Dr Robyn Miller, said there had been dramatic improvements in the level of care offered to children in the last 12 months.

"The data ... has shown a decrease in those serious incidents, yes they are still happening ... that's the nature of the work," Dr Miller said. "The children are often relinquished from their families or from other placements because of these violent behaviours, because of the drug use. That's the nature of the work. But what I can say is with different ways of training and supervision and more creative options like the targeted care packages we are seeing a decrease, and that's important."

Dr Miller said police and other agencies had seen a decrease in ice use in the Geelong region since a peak in 2015, and this was being reflected throughout the units run by MacKillop.

Ms Purtill said the only way to fix the residential care system was to provide more therapeutic care to children in the system, and force them to seek help in the most extreme cases.

"I sometimes wonder if they would have been better staying with their families because once they are in the system the added trauma on top of what's already happened to them is horrendous," she said. "They are in a state of heightened fear most of the time in the houses."

A spokesperson said the Government was committed to transforming the residential care system as a whole.

By Sam Clark and Daniel Oakes

14 February 2017 


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