Tia (not her name) is a middle-aged woman with adult children who works with a young boy in residential care, or did until recently. I first heard of her through a friend, who tells me Tia has been stood down and subsequently called to a meeting. I have no connection with Tia but, hearing of her situation, volunteer to support her at the meeting.
Two women are in the room when we enter. One is Tia’s coordinator, the other is from child protection at the Department of Human Services (DHS). Tia is asked to give her account of the events a particular day. “What can you tell us,” she is then asked, “about someone saying that you …?”. Tia responds that these claims are untrue. “I have never hurt a child in my life,” she says. “Not my own, and certainly not this one.”
I ask about possible outcomes of the investigation and get a cautious answer about fully, partly or unsubstantiated findings. I ask how long the investigation is likely to take, and get an even more cautious answer, tagged by the comment that “I can see you are taking notes, Joan.”
Two months later, Tia is called to a second meeting. Two women are again there to meet us, both representing the employer this time, although neither was at the first meeting; one is Tia’s manager; the other is from Human Resources. The following letter is on the table:
“This is to confirm the discussion at the meeting today that Caring Family Services [the name is changed] have decided to terminate your employment during the probationary period. Consistent with our obligations under the Fair Work Act 2009 and the National Employment Standards, you will be provided one week’s pay in lieu of notice, and the termination of your employment is effective immediately.”
No reason is given for the termination. No reason is required, provided it occurs within the probationary period, and Tia is a couple of weeks short of her six months.
There are more allegations now that are news to us both. Tia is not allowed to respond to them though. She is told the investigation is closed and will not be reopened. Her manager additionally claims that Tia previously minimised the seriousness of the allegations, although the basis of this assertion is likewise not up for discussion, and it must be secondhand because the manager and Tia have not previously met.
The meeting continues. An ongoing process (Section 82) could, we hear, result in cancellation of Tia’s Working with Children Check. This decision will be made without further input from Tia, and will take an indefinite time. I sense her shock, but she is doing okay under the circumstances.
No ‘charge sheet’
In reality, it has been impossible for Tia to respond to all the allegations because they were never provided in writing, or indeed even made clear at either meeting. They must, at least, have been included in the report of the investigation, but Tia’s request for a copy of that report is refused. Nothing in writing for her, it seems.
If she had been dealing with the formal justice system, there would have been more procedural fairness and a greater chance of adequate defence – written charge sheet, legal representation, cross-examination of witnesses, and right of appeal, for starters. As it is, she feels like a criminal, found guilty without due process.
Lack of transparency
Much has happened behind closed doors, between people who were not witness to the alleged incidents, who have nonetheless produced a report, which Tia is not allowed to see, or respond to, but that has devastating implications – even if she never wants to work with children again.
At the end of the day, Tia has lost her job, and nothing will change that. She is, however, desperate to clear her name but does not know how to proceed. The no-reason termination is tainted by the reportedly closed investigation, and the two are blurred to Tia’s disadvantage. The investigation is not closed from where she stands.
Her suggestion of writing a letter is passed over with an offer of an online exit interview. My suggestion of writing a letter is met “with all due respect” and a reminder that I am the support person. This blogpost is thus as a way of responding to the inadequacies of the process I witnessed. I also think Tia could approach DHS directly for clarification and, if still unsatisfied, pursue Freedom of Information (FOI), and/or the Victorian Civil and Administrative Tribunal (VCAT).
Tia needs clear answers to at least the following questions:
- Was a complaint made to the Department of Human Services (DHS) specifically naming Tia? If so, what were the specific allegations? Should these have been provided in writing for Tia? If so, by whom? (Or, was the complaint more generally about the care of the child, in which case did it extend beyond Tia, perhaps to the service provider per se?)
- Was a complaint against Tia fully substantiated, partly substantiated, or unsubstantiated?
- If a complaint against Tia was substantiated, was it deemed sufficiently serious to involve an application to revoke her Working with Children Check? If so, how long will it be before she is notified? Will she be notified whatever the outcome? Who provides that notification?
- If Tia’s Working with Children Check is revoked, what avenues does she have for appeal? Who does she need to approach, and where would she find relevant information?
Lack of compassion
This experience has devastated Tia – the lack of clarity, lack of procedural fairness, and particularly the lack of compassion. In the ten weeks she was stood down, she had (to my knowledge) one call from a supervisor, other than to arrange meetings. When she called to get updates, she had to wait for return calls, sometimes several days. At the final meeting, the two representatives of the employer were keen for us to leave once the termination letter was off their table. Tia’s “grieving” needed to occur elsewhere.
Employers refer to ‘appropriate professional boundaries’, ‘privacy provisions’, and ‘confidentiality’ to cover such practices but, from the receiving end, they are experienced as inhumane. It is time to provide more care for carers, and something resembling due process.
Tia is not alone; I have known many workers in similar situations over many years, and in a subsequent post I will discuss some of the contributing factors, including the clash between business and charity models that shapes the service context.
Written By Joan Beckwith, PhD
20/20 Social Justice
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