THE CEO of community service organisation Communities at Work has denied accusations of “bullying” and a “lack of support” at its foster care program Galilee, calling the claims “bizarre”.Lynne Harwood says that while she is aware of some staff exits in recent months, they have been “nothing out of the ordinary”, dismissing the claims as “all the work of a disgruntled ex-employee who has roped other carers in with them.”
“CityNews” does not suggest that Ms Harwood herself has had any part in the alleged bullying.
Former and current foster carers of the program raised their concerns with “CityNews” after an anonymous tip-off about a “mass” exit by carers.
Galilee, managed by Communities at Work, is a program that places vulnerable children and young people with foster care families in the Canberra region.
According to foster carers who spoke with “CityNews”, there has been a “staff overhaul” in recent years and there is a “lack of understanding about the foster care process”.
Common allegations from carers included “no real support or consideration for carers who need it”, and a deeply imbedded “bullying and intimidation culture”.
One carer, who did not wish to be named, says a recent foster care gathering “really brought home” the “issues” with Galilee.
“At a carers’ morning tea recently, everyone there was just saying ‘how long till you leave’?” she said.
“When we found we were all experiencing the same thing, we knew this is not a problem with us, this is what’s happening. I personally know at least three people who have left because of the issues here and there will be more to come.”
She said there was a level of “intimidation” present where case workers “turn up to your house unannounced” and “search under your bed without telling you what they’re doing or why they need to do it”.
“We have also been told that we are not allowed to contact other carers, which I know is wrong,” she said.
“Galilee will say ‘you know we will take this child away if you don’t co-operate with us.’ They have been known to blacklist carers who have raised concerns or will take away a child if a carer questions them on things like transport for their foster child – even if that child has already been moved many times to different foster homes.
“They’re meant to work in the best interest of the child, but they clearly work in the best interest of their organisation.”
Although the carer is still with the Galilee program, she says she is in the process of looking for jobs at other foster care agencies.
“We volunteer 24 hours a day with our families, our houses, our hearts. We do deserve a little bit of respect,” she said.
Another foster carer, who has since left the program, says carers simply want “their voices to be heard” and that she had constantly raised her complaints with staff members.
“I tried again and again but it fell on deaf ears,” she said.
“If there’s all these carers who say the same thing about Galilee – well surely we can’t all be crazy here. There’s something very wrong happening and all people want is to sort it out,” she said.
But Communities at Work CEO Lynne Harwood said: “There’s always movement; we are aware of a few people going to another agency but there’s always people coming in as well. There has been no ‘mass exit.
“I’m actually quite shocked by this.”
When asked whether staff complaints would have escalated to her level, she admitted: “If it was a day-to-day complaint, I wouldn’t know about it,” but added that if a complaint was deemed to be handled unsatisfactorily, it would eventually have come to her.
“With the nature of foster care, there’s always going to be qualms or niggles and we pride ourselves on the rigorous mechanism we have in place to address all that,” she said.
“Any carer has the ability to work through that.
“I believe this is all the work of an ex-staff member who has left in a less than amicable manner. It’s a personal vendetta and it’s not helpful to the majority of foster carers out there,” she said.
“This staff member is trying to make a mountain out of a molehill.”
She says she would be “very keen” to talk to foster carers who “aren’t disgruntled ex-employees and who are truly unhappy” and work through any issues with them.
A source at the ACT Foster Care Association said they were aware of complaints from carers about Galilee but did not wish to be named.