THERE are 18,000 children in crisis in the Hunter Central Coast region, and less than one in five have had contact with a caseworker as the number of frontline workers employed to protect them continues to decline.
The other 14,817 children identified as being at risk of significant harm, have been left to fend for themselves.
The number of children in the Hunter who have featured in "risk of significant harm" (ROSH) reports and who have seen a caseworker has dropped by almost half compared to the same time 12 months ago, from 1,180 to 502, or 42 per cent.
The majority of those have been reported for suspected cases of neglect, physical abuse, sexual abuse, or emotional abuse, in that order.
The Hunter Central Coast continues to be the worst performing region in NSW with the highest number of children featured in ROSH reports but without intervention or assessment of any kind - 81 per cent compared to state total of 74 per cent.
The Minister for Families and Communities and Disability Inclusion, Port Stephens MP Kate Washington, said the Minns Labor Government had inherited significant and serious workforce issues in child protection, especially in the Hunter.
"And the consequences are heartbreaking," Ms Washington said.
"But it's a symptom of a broken system that desperately needs repairing. Our DCJ (Department of Communities and Justice) workers do an amazing job in incredibly challenging and complex situations.
"As the new Minister, I've been meeting with many DCJ workers and hearing their passion and frustrations.
"For the sake of vulnerable children across the state, we are determined to fix the broken child protection system, but it won't happen overnight."
Ms Washington will be in Newcastle next week to meet with frontline workers to hear more from them about the challenges they face.
The results of an unresponsive system, usually shrouded in secrecy due to privacy laws protecting children's identities, came to light late last year due to the comments of an outspoken DCJ caseworker and a children's court judge on a particularly shocking case of neglect and mismanagement.
In that case, involving two boys in years 6 and 7 known by the pseudonyms Lincoln and Finn, DCJ received 25 risk of serious harm reports relating to the children between April 2011 and May 2020.
Those reports were made in relation to risks of psychological harm, exposure to domestic violence, alcohol abuse and risk of physical harm and neglect.
The children's mother had been known to the child protection agency since 1999 due to safety and risk issues around her five oldest children, who are now all adults.
She had been referred to numerous services to address safety and risk issues since the children were young.
The children were only taken into care after a police raid of her house on May 28, 2020, where drugs and drug paraphernalia were found in the garage and in her bedroom.
After coming into care, they continued to be reported for suspected instances of sexual abuse, physical abuse, and neglect - including a failure to attend school because they were cold and hungry.
Both boys told a government caseworker they didn't want to go to school as they were cold because they didn't have winter uniforms and were concerned about the distance.
"It is both shocking and unacceptable that children in care of the state are too cold to go to school because they do not have a winter uniform," Children's Court magistrate Tracy Sheedy said in a review of the case.
The boys had been placed in 'last resort' alternate care arrangement, which involves children being kept in hotels, motels or serviced apartments. About 100 children are in such arrangements at any one time in NSW.
A urgent review into out-of-home-care was ordered off the back of that case and Ms Sheedy's assessment of the sector described the boys' treatment as "unconscionable", and lambasted the "appalling neglect" and "failure" in care by the providers responsible, which included Lifestyle Solutions, Life Without Barriers, and the NSW Department of Communities and Justice.
A Department of Communities and Justices spokesperson said the issue came down to frontline staff.
"The March 2023 net quarterly caseworker vacancy rate is seven per cent, up from six per cent for the previous quarter," a statement issued to the Newcastle Herald said.
"The increasing vacancy rate reflects the current state of the NSW labour market with fewer candidates applying and an increase in turnover of existing staff. The impacts of COVID-19 have also contributed to increased turnover."
Caseworker recruitment and retention efforts were ongoing, the spokesperson said.