A consistent theme across most consultation meetings for this topic was that the family violence sector faces significant workforce challenges, and this is adding to the pressure that services already face due to demand levels and the increasing complexity and severity of cases. This was raised as an issue across The Orange Door, Safe Steps, specialist services and therapeutic services, and we know these challenges extend to other social services. As acknowledged in the Victorian Government’s 10-Year Industry Plan for Family Violence, careful workforce planning is essential to achieve the outcomes articulated in the Victorian Government’s family violence strategies and therefore has a major impact on the victim survivor experience.
The specialist family violence workforce
The 2019 Census of Workforces that Intersect with Family Violence is the most recent source of information about Victoria’s specialist family violence workforce.1 The census showed that practitioners within the specialist family violence workforce (43 per cent of which is located in specialist family violence services) were generally satisfied with their role, the hours they were working and the support provided by their manager. Sixty-one per cent were confident that they had enough training and experience to perform their role effectively.
A range of initiatives have also been put in place to grow the specialist workforce including:
- a dedicated family violence jobs hub and associated recruitment campaign (‘So, what do you do?’)
- the Enhanced Pathways to Family Violence Work Project, where community service and specialist family violence organisations apply to host student placements and introduce students to family violence practice
- establishment of the Family Violence and Sexual Assault Graduate Program and a Family Violence and Sexual Assault Traineeships program.
There have also been initiatives to build leadership capacity within the sector such as the Fast Track intensive leadership program delivered by Safe and Equal, which is free to successful applicants and an important way to improve career pathways within the sector.
However, even pre-COVID-19, there were substantial workforce challenges requiring attention. For example, the census showed that 40 per cent of respondents had plans to leave their current role in the next 12 months. As shown in Figure 9, a significant proportion of respondents cited issues around stress and negative impacts of work as influencing their desire to leave their current role.
Our fourth report to the Victorian Parliament highlighted that retention issues were undermining the significant effort that had gone into workforce attraction and recruitment. As we stated, without dedicated efforts to improve workforce wellbeing and employment conditions, there is a risk of a ‘revolving door’ where ‘people will enter the sector, only to leave through disappointment in workforce resourcing and burn out’.2
During our consultations, multiple sector stakeholders spoke of high levels of workforce fatigue and burnout, resulting in increased absenteeism and turnover and difficulty filling vacancies, in part due to the ongoing impact of COVID-19. These issues are common across the social services sector including for workforces that commonly deliver services to victim survivors such as Child Protection workers and housing and homelessness workers:
Pre-COVID, many community service organisations struggled to secure enough new workers to fill vacancies. Workforce shortages were particularly acute in regional areas. These workforce pressures have been exacerbated by COVID-19, with exponential growth in demand for social assistance. This represents a major existential challenge for the community services industry – and government.
The prolonged nature of the pandemic has left staff stressed and exhausted.
The family violence workforce represents the frontline of reform implementation; it plays a critical role in supporting the recovery of victim survivors and must be supported to do so. The Victorian Council of Social Service highlighted the need to develop strategies that address wellbeing concerns and workforce retention issues by targeting the structural causes of insecure work and low pay in the community sector. We agree, and suggest part of the focus must be on short-term funding arrangements, which stakeholders have repeatedly told us have a significant, negative impact on workforce security and retention [relates to action 9].
There are clearly positive foundations that exist for the family violence workforce, including a commitment to the work and the increasingly professionalisation of the workforce, which many stakeholders highlighted. These could be built upon by ensuring there are ‘career pathways and remuneration that reflects the considerable expertise, risk and complexity specialist practitioners hold’. Given the common issues across social services workforces, it may be worth considering whether the activities designed to attract and retain a diverse workforce within the Child Protection sector could inform activities for the family violence and sexual assault sectors.
Numerous stakeholders independently raised the challenge the implementation of the Royal Commission’s recommendation 209 is adding to a workforce that was already struggling. Recommendation 209 is that:
The Victorian Government include in the 10-year industry plan for family violence prevention and response a staged process for the introduction of mandatory qualifications for specialist family violence practitioners, so that no later than 31 December 2020 all funded services must require family violence practitioners to hold a social work or equivalent degree.
The intention of this recommendation was that the introduction of an appropriate minimum tertiary qualification may:
- enhance the professional standing of family violence practitioners
- reflect the range and complexity of their work
- lead to improved remuneration.
This recommendation is now marked as ‘implemented’ on the Victorian Government’s family violence recommendation acquittal website. Implementation has begun through an initial five-year transition period, as described below. From 1 July 2021, any new practitioner within an agency funded by the Victorian Government to deliver family violence services who will be providing specialist services directly to victim survivors and/or perpetrators must meet the Minimum Qualifications Policy pathways to entering specialist family violence work. Key features of the approach include the following:
- Specialist family violence practitioners employed before the start of the transition period are exempted from the minimum qualification requirement, as long as they maintain continuous service in specialist family violence roles.
- New specialist employees have a five-year transition period from 1 July 2021 until 30 June 2026 during which they must either hold a Bachelor of Social Work or equivalent qualification, or be working towards meeting it within five years from their date of employment (if they have at least five years of experience in a relevant field or hold a related qualification).
- Candidates who bring significant cultural knowledge and experience or lived experience and who face barriers to educational pathways can be employed in specialist roles with appropriate support, and have 10 years to work towards a social work or equivalent qualification.
- Employers are responsible for determining whether a candidate’s qualifications collectively meet all seven equivalency principles that have been developed in alignment with the Bachelor of Social Work or whether additional units of learning are required over time to meet the minimum requirements.
The workforce census showed that much of the workforce already holds a qualification of some sort (most frequently a bachelor’s degree – 49 per cent of census respondents held a qualification of this type), so it seems that many new specialists are likely to have at least met some of the equivalency principles.
Most stakeholders who expressed concern about the requirements spoke about the social work degree in particular; they didn’t feel it was essential for the job and felt very limited in who they could hire. Aboriginal Community Controlled Organisations, in particular, felt that the policy insufficiently acknowledged lived experience and on-the-job training. Safe and Equal, which is directly supporting services to implement the policy, has advised us that the policy can be difficult for family violence services to implement. They said there is variability in the level of understanding of what ‘equivalent qualifications’ means and that employers can be fearful of ‘getting it wrong’, which leads them to narrowly interpret the policy as a requirement for applicants to have a social work degree.
These challenges were directly acknowledged in advice released by the Department of Families, Fairness and Housing in September 2022. This advice recognised that ‘these ongoing challenges mean that not all practitioners will be able to be hired in precise accordance with the Policy pathways at this early stage of implementation’. It emphasised that:
The Policy puts employers at the centre of determining if a candidate is the right fit for the role and meets an employment pathway under the Policy. Expectations of the shift to meeting the Policy are of progressive change and we want to avoid the Policy driving unintended consequences.
This advice may help to build the sector’s confidence to implement the policy more fully, and this will continue to be monitored through the Transition Monitoring Advisory Group. Acknowledging that a review of the policy will occur during the transition period to determine whether any changes are required, we suggest further consideration of:
- how the policy intersects with the Social Services Jobs Guarantee, which matches Diploma of Community Services graduates with jobs in a range of social services including family violence and sexual assault services
- the additional guidance and resources required for organisations recruiting candidates on the lived experience pathway [relates to action 10]
- whether organisations need additional support to map relevant past experiences and qualifications and determine appropriate pathways to meet the equivalency principles.
Lived experience workforce
Victim survivors we met with spoke about the healing power of supporting and/or advocating for other victim survivors by engaging in lived experience work in the sector. For example:
Becoming a Survivor Advocate has helped me to rise above fear, doubt and mental health issues and recover from my experiences. It has been so rewarding getting to meet so many other survivors who are all such inspirational, courageous women.
The industry plan notes the importance of the voices of victim survivors being strong throughout the family violence system. It commits to ‘creating genuine employment opportunities in specialist family violence and primary prevention organisations’ and recognises that:
Victim survivors working in these fields need a range of professional skills to complement their lived experience. Family violence doesn’t discriminate and victim survivors possess a great diversity of skills, knowledge and experience across a range of disciplines, so skills support needs to be provided on a tailored basis, based on an assessment of each individual’s needs.
Some stakeholders pointed out there is currently no model or career pathway for a lived experience workforce in the family violence sector. We note that the Mandatory Qualifications Policy provides a dedicated pathway for people with lived experience to enter the specialist family violence workforce. However, there is no specific framework around lived experience work, as there is in the mental health sector.
The mental health sector has seen government investment in lived experience roles, including peer support positions. This is expected to grow as the system and services reorient to meet the directions of the Royal Commission in Victoria’s Mental Health System, which places lived experience at the centre of reform including lived experience leadership at every level. The Victorian Council of Social Service has suggested that government ‘leverage insights from the mental health reforms to develop strategies to encourage people with lived experience to become community services industry employees and to support them in their roles’.
Victoria’s new mental health and wellbeing workforce strategy positions lived experience as ‘central to the transformation of the mental health and wellbeing system’ and includes 10 priority actions to develop and embed the lived experience workforce. These actions are about establishing new roles, training and development, access to supervision, career pathways, and attraction, recruitment and retention. The strategy highlights a $40.7 million investment into lived experience workforces ‘to support and grow the consumer and carer lived experience workforces, including support for 30 peer cadets each year’. Examples of lived experience roles in mental health settings are listed at Figure 10 and could inform the types of lived experience positions that the family violence sector could benefit from.
Figure 10: Examples of specific lived experience roles across role categories in mental health settings
|Consumer peer support workers use their personal lived experience of mental illness and recovery to support other consumers individually or in groups.||Consumer consultants collate information and feedback from consumers about their views and experiences of a service and use this information to make recommendations for service improvement.||Lived experience managers are experienced consumer or family/carer workers who support and develop other lived experience workers. They may or may not line-manage staff or provide practice supervision for, or mentor, other workers.||Consumer and family/carer educators ensure consumer and family/carer perspectives, participation and involvement are included in all aspects of education and training provided in services.||Consumer advocates support consumers to have a voice and be a party to issues that affect them; Carer advocates support family/carers to be heard in relation to issues that affect them.||Consumer and carer researchers draw on their lived experience to promote and enable the engagement of consumers and carers at all stages of research.|
Source: Department of Health (2021): Lived experience workforce positions report: Victorian mental health and alcohol and other drug services 2019–20, pp. 8-9.
There are clearly some challenges in building and maintaining this workforce. For example, the lived experience workforce in mental health has a vacancy rate of 23 per cent, the highest vacancy rates of all public specialist mental health services workforces. Feedback from the Department of Health is that formally introducing an effective lived experience workforce takes many years and that it is most important to ensure:
- lived experience workers have role clarity
- employers and colleagues understand the role of lived experience workers
- employers and colleagues create the conditions that allow lived experience workers to thrive.
We suggest any work to formalise a family violence lived experience workforce should prioritise these fundamental areas and consider the applicability of other features of the mental health lived experience sector [relates to action 11]. These include:
- the existence of a Certificate IV in Mental Health Peer Work
- the launch of the Lived Experience Peer Cadet Program for those undertaking the qualification
- the development of a suite of resources to support employers, including a self-assessment tool to measure an organisation’s maturity in being able to support lived experience practitioners.
Furthermore, Family Safety Victoria’s Family Violence Lived Experience Strategy contains principles co‑designed by the Victim Survivors’ Advisory Council, as well as lessons learned from the council’s model, which may support the formalisation of a lived experience workforce in the sector.
- We note that a family violence and sexual assault workforce pulse survey was carried out in September and October 2022, but the findings were not available for this report.
- Fenton (2019): Family Safety Victoria: Research to Inform the Development of a Campaign to Grow the Family Violence Workforce, p. 6.