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BC's Beleaguered Child Protectors

Social workers say bulging caseloads, funding cuts and churn at the top are putting kids at risk.

Katie Hyslop 11 May

Katie Hyslop is a Vancouver-based journalist who reports for Megaphone and others.

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Breaking up families, a brutal job.

Think your job is hard? Imagine if you broke up families for a living.

That's the reality for child protection social workers. While their main aim is to keep families together, that's not always possible, and when things don't work out social workers remove kids from their parents.

It's a tough job, but from 2000 to 2008, Tracey Young had to do it.

"I remember a really distressing case where the child had been brought into care, just a tiny little child. And the dad was a very compromised person himself, a substance abuser, and he just wasn't going to be able to have the child," recalls Young, who worked for British Columbia's Ministry of Child and Family Development (MCFD).

"It was also one of the saddest cases for me, too, because this was a man, and the mother, who genuinely loved their baby and they just didn't have the capacity to be able to give her what she needed."

But Young didn't have much time to dwell on the tragedy of splitting up a family for good -- social workers have dozens of cases to look after, sometimes more than 35 active cases at once. That means 34 other families, 34 other loads of paper work waiting back at the office.

Former and current MCFD social workers like Young are speaking out, however, on what they say is an overwhelming caseload and lack of resources that has turned their job from preventative work with families in trouble, to picking up the pieces of families broken apart by addiction, mental illness, and poverty.

"Workers do their best to try to pull together good plans and try to support and protect children and support families as well. But the system has been broken down for a long time now," says Young, now an advocate for social workers and families involved with MCFD through the BC Association of Social Workers and her blog, Advocacy BC.

It's a strained system largely shielded from public eyes. When B.C.'s independent child welfare watchdog Mary Ellen Turpel-Lafond sought cabinet documents to complete an audit, the BC Liberal government introduced legislation denying her access. She filed a court petition last Tuesday saying she had hit the wall in her efforts to get government information she needs to gauge how well protected children are in B.C.

Children's Minister Mary Polak called the petition a "waste of scarce resources" and said Turpel-Lafond's access would be blocked unless she signs a "protocol agreement" on confidentiality -- an agreement Turpel-Lafond refuses to sign.

Climbing caseloads

Currently in B.C. there are roughly 9,000 children in foster families and another 4,000 living outside their parents' house, usually with a relative, under MCFD supervision. Just over half these kids are aboriginal. Almost all of them live in poverty.

For all these children, there are 1,276 social workers to manage their cases, 17 more since 2001 -- one year after the Liberal party noted in their election platform a serious lack of social workers.

The 2006 Hughes Report included in its list of 62 recommendations for MCFD that it hire more social workers. MCFD obliged by hiring 180 more workers in 2006, but 185 full-time equivalences were cut in the 2009 provincial budget.

The effects of a reduced workforce on social workers were revealed in Hands Tied: Child Protection Workers Talk About Working In, and Leaving, B.C.'s Child Welfare System, a report issued by Pivot Legal Society last year. Of the 109 current and former child protection workers surveyed, over one-third said they juggle 25 to 35 active cases at one time, while the same amount claim to have over 35.

"Thirty-five is too much," Young says. "Too much to be able to give the kind of attention that children and families need to do proactive work."

Each case comes with its own paperwork, visits with clients and foster families, and appointments. A large chunk of this work used to be the responsibility of social work assistants, but ministry cuts meant many offices lost those positions.

Then there are the kids in the social worker's care.

Every time a social worker takes a child from their parents, they become the child's legal guardian, responsible for setting up and attending visits with possible foster families, attending school meetings or doctor appointments, and signing documents on the child's behalf. Young had up to five children in her care at any one time, sometimes more.

But it isn't just the kids the social worker has to worry about. On one file a child protection social worker is responsible for working with three groups: the children, the parents, and the caregivers.

In addition to their own high caseload, child protection social workers are asked to cover for co-workers on sick or maternity leave, or even those who have retired or quit.

This burdensome workload takes its toll. Hands Tied asserts MCFD child protection workers had one of the highest job turnover rates in government from 2002 to 2006: 10 per cent. They also had an annual sick leave well above government average: 12.39 days per employee, compared to 8.55 for other government workers.

Close to 70 per cent of the former MCFD workers surveyed in Hands Tied indicated a smaller caseload would have been "very likely" to convince them to stay, higher than a wage increase.

MCFD hasn't publicly responded to Hands Tied but disputed the report's numbers in an email response, claiming turnover only increased from 6.3 per cent to 7.15 per cent from 2005 to 2008, including retirements.

Disputes over numbers aside, Hands Tied results reveal child protection workers feel they aren't able to do their job.

From preventative care to triaging

Only eight per cent of the workers surveyed felt they were always able to act in the best interests of the child, while 49 per cent said they sometimes did.

Young fell into the latter group.

"That was one of the strong reasons that I wanted to leave and needed a career change because I just wasn't able to spend as much time with both the children that I was legal guardian to, but also the families, just to be able to support the parents, because that's where my strengths lie to help bring about change," she says.

It wasn't always like this. UBC social work professor Richard Sullivan worked as a child protection social worker in B.C. during the 1970s. He says a lot of his job was offering assistance to parents dealing with the daily stresses of being a parent.

"You would spend at least half of your day responding to calls from parents with normal developmental questions, or wanting to know if they were frustrated, could you get them some homemaker help," Sullivan recalls. "Or people calling for things like, 'Can you get my kids to camp?'"

But today, instead of offering assistance to families before they reach the end of their rope, social workers spend most of their time dealing with families in crisis, where abuse or neglect has already allegedly occurred.

To every sector, turn, turn, turnover

It isn't just front line child protection workers who are jumping ship. In the 14 years since MCFD was created, there have been 11 ministers and nine deputy ministers in charge of the portfolio.

Among Hughes' recommendations was a call for the "revolving door" of MCFD ministers and deputy ministers to stop. The Liberal party made a similar statement in its 2000 election platform by promising to "stop the endless bureaucratic restructuring that has drained resources from children and family services."

Mary Polak is the current MCFD minister, the third since the Hughes Report came out. She took the helm in June 2009, and Young questions whether Polak or any of the previous MCFD ministers were qualified for the portfolio.

"[Governments] seem incapable of appointing anyone who has a background in child welfare, social services," Young says, pointing her finger at the previous New Democratic Party (NDP) government as well.

Sullivan says MCFD is one of the least popular ministries in government and politicians try to get out of it as quickly as possible.

"The best thing that an MCFD minister can hope for is to stay out of the press. Since when is no press good for a political profile?" he asks.

Current Deputy Minister Lesley du Toit has a background in social work -- but she had to be brought in from South Africa.

"She has never worked on the frontlines in B.C. She was handpicked by Gordon Campbell. Most people do not know how long she had been waiting in the wings and how long she's been getting consulting contracts prior to her being announced as deputy minister," says Young.

Sullivan has concerns about du Toit as well.

"She was first brought in as a consultant at about $20,000 a month, and has now been in place for quite a long time. Where are the deliverables?" he asked, referring to her initial three-month contract position in 2006 to complete the implementation of Hughes' recommendations. "And if they're not there, why is she still there?"

By last count, 28 of the 62 recommendations had yet to be implemented. That was in December 2008.

In an email statement Polak said MCFD's Strong, Safe and Supported report, released in April 2008, moved beyond Hughes by creating an "action plan" for all the services offered by MCFD.

But the provincial Representative for Children and Youth Mary Ellen Turpel-Lafond -- a government appointed MCFD watchdog -- called the report an "aspirational plan" without a budget, implementation plan, or timeline. She also criticized MCFD for issuing the report without any collaboration from her office.

Turpel-Lafond was not available for comment, but during a meeting of the Child and Youth Committee last November, she said to her knowledge the Hughes recommendations were not fully implemented.

Cut and reshuffle

Further cuts were introduced in the 2010 Budget when the ministry announced it would transfer $5 million from its regular services to fund its aboriginal services. This is in addition to a cut of $7.4 million to MCFD contract agencies that according to an article in the Vancouver Sun "provide the bulk of front-line services for the ministry."

Previous efforts to create separate aboriginal-run child welfare authorities, beginning in 2001, have stalled. After eight years and only two authorities with full delegation over aboriginal child welfare, MCFD abandoned this idea in favour of an interim First Nations Child and Family Wellness Council, created in March 2009.

The Council, comprised of aboriginal groups and MCFD, is slated to develop the Indigenous Child at the Centre Action Plan. The plan was supposed to be implemented within six months -- a draft was completed in May 2009, but hasn't been finalized.

But region reorganization hasn't stopped there.

Last October, du Toit announced a rearrangement of some of the ministry's five regions. Young fears changing the regions will result in more instability.

"They are essentially splitting apart the office that used to cover Bella Coola, Bella Bella and Klemtu. It has taken MCFD years to get some half-way stable leadership and workers up there and now that office, in one decision from Victoria, is apparently no longer," she says.

The ministry had to make these changes on a reduced budget -- government froze the MCFD budget for three years starting 2009. A wage freeze was also introduced.

"Cuts should not be placed on that ministry," Young says. "It's been cut to the bone, and in my opinion there's no where more to cut, and yet those cuts continue."

This year the Child in the Home of a Relative and Kith and Kin programs -- child protection arrangements where children removed from their parents are placed with family members -- were also scrapped, replaced by an Extended Family Care program, a decision Young says was made without any consultation with workers or community stakeholders.

Who cares about kids?

One of the reasons the government can get away with underfunding and reshuffling MCFD, Sullivan says, is because it's a service that doesn't have a large amount of political or public support.

"The stakeholders are pretty beleaguered people, who at the point at which government assistance is made available is a very residual and intrusive form of assistance, and therefore not popular and not well received," he says.

Many of the kids in care now were born to parents who also grew up in the province's child protection system.

"I've heard many tales of abuse from parents who had been in care," says Young, adding a history of poverty, mental illness, or addiction is often at the root of a family's problems. "Their children are then at risk sometimes because they didn't learn how to be properly parented themselves."

But while working with families in crisis -- and in some cases breaking them apart -- can be stressful, Sullivan says all the studies he has read in the last decade indicate social workers are leaving because MCFD cannot get its act together.

"They need to stop the turnover at all sorts of levels, right from line levels, attrition rates, to yes, stop the turnover of ministers," he says. "Get somebody with some vision and commitment, and maybe develop some senior staff who have come up through the system and have credibility with the line staff and not parachute people in from other countries and other jurisdictions and other ministries with maybe some management skills but no real knowledge of child welfare."  [Tyee]

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