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Glitch Filled Systems Put Aboriginal Kids at Risk

Child welfare workers hampered by BC's three overlapping, error-prone case tracking processes.

By Katie Hyslop 23 Jul 2012 | TheTyee.ca

Katie Hyslop reports on youth and education issues for The Tyee Solutions Society.

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Minister for Children and Family Development Mary McNeil: Urged to invest in fixing Aboriginal child welfare case management systems.

Since April social workers with the Ministry for Children and Family Development (MCFD) have repeatedly faced files going missing, important notices being overlooked, and families and children put at risk when they dedicated more time to navigating the province's new error-prone case management system than serving clients.

Last Thursday, B.C.'s Representative for Children and Youth Mary Ellen Turpel-LaFond spoke out about the dangers a faulty case management system poses for the province's most vulnerable children.

"The volume of technical problems that front line workers have identified increases risks to safety of children. It is not a matter of one problem getting in the way of a task, but multiple problems at the same time," read her statement.

What the representative didn't mention, however, is that some Aboriginal child welfare services have been dealing with these issues for five years.

Aboriginal child welfare social workers are currently using three case management systems: the ministry's Management Information System (MIS), the Integrated Case Management System (ICM) that has been slowly replacing MIS since April, and Best Practices, a system designed by the Cowichan Tribes.

"I think systems management is a fairly huge risk and liability issue," Lise Haddock, executive director of Lalum'utul' Smun'eem Child and Family Services of the Cowichan Tribes, told The Tyee.

Haddock says integration of the systems is key to keeping on top of case information, particularly when multiple agencies have different files on the same families. But the current system is inefficient and possibly dangerous.

"Social workers are being asked to do entry into three systems at the same time they're supposed to be serving children and families."

No funding for Aboriginal case management

Authorized through the Child, Family and Community Services Act to offer a range of child welfare services to First Nations on and off reserves, Delegated Aboriginal Agencies (DAAs) range in "operational readiness" from providing support services for families to offering the full-range of child welfare services to First Nations families depending on the agency's certification.

DAAs currently serve 2,034 Aboriginal children in care -- 44.4 per cent of the total amount of Aboriginal children in care in this province. Although just over four per cent of B.C.'s population is Aboriginal, they represent almost 60 per cent of the children in government care.

DAAs receive operating funds from both the provincial and federal governments. But there is no specific funding for case management systems. While 18 of the 30 DAAs use MIS and ICM, the rest were dissatisfied with MIS, which Haddock describes as a primarily a "data management system."

"(MIS) basically shares a skeleton of information required in regards to intake investigations. But it really isn't a system that is created to get a comprehensive picture of supports and services and the work that's done within the context of a file," she says.

Instead the Cowichan Tribes created the Best Practices case management system 15 years ago on their own dime using "in-kind resources and efficiencies." Government made a promise to integrate the two systems, and completed the first phase in 2007. But nothing has happened since.

"MIS is a data management system, Best Practices is a case management system. ICM is moving towards being a case management system, but there have been significant challenges in its development," says Haddock.

Many of those challenges are shared with their counterparts at non-Aboriginal child welfare agencies, including issues accessing and retrieving information, accessing the case library, logging onto the system, and receiving after-hours notices about child welfare incidents.

Haddock says social workers have reverted to low-tech solutions like faxing after-hours reports to the ministry, or waiting longer to receive reports that would be sent immediately through a working case management system.

$12 million in a net zero climate

The MCFD responded to the Turpel-LaFond's grievances almost immediately last week, promising to spend $12 million on an action plan that includes holding off on implementing phase three of the transition, and hiring 100 new social workers and 50 administrative workers to allow current workers to spend more time on ICM training.

"The fundamental reasons for moving to a new integrated case management system still exist and we are committed to making this work," read a statement from Minister Mary McNeil.

"Moving backwards is not an option. But it is clear to all of us that more work is needed to ensure the child protection components of the system are optimal for staff and the children and families they serve."

But Haddock is discouraged that the minister's statement mentioned nothing about the case management issues faced by DAAs. It isn't that MCFD is unaware of the problem -- Haddock sent the deputy minister a letter outlining her concerns months ago.

"I am shocked that Aboriginal agencies were not even mentioned in the (minister's) announcement," says Haddock.

"In a zero budget (they) managed to magically find $12 million, 100 new social workers and 50 admin folks to support ICM, while additional services for children and families remain unaddressed, and our agencies remain in the dark."

In an emailed statement to The Tyee, a MCFD spokesperson said the minister's statement was meant to be inclusive of DAAs, too.

"The actions announced yesterday are meant to address these challenges. With regards to Best Practices, the Ministry is in ongoing discussions with DAAs on the use of that system," read the statement.

But given the ministry's track record for integrating between MIS and Best Practices, Haddock remains concerned that Aboriginal agencies will continue to be left behind.

"The concern for us is that as ICM moves forward, what is going to be the relationship, the inclusion, the support, for the First Nations users," she says.  [Tyee]

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