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Rights + Justice

Social Workers Say Poor Job Conditions Put Kids in Danger

In the wake of a horrific child abuse case in foster care, child welfare workers tell of understaffing and burnout.

Jen St. Denis and Katie Hyslop 30 Aug 2023The Tyee

Jen St. Denis is a reporter with The Tyee covering civic issues. Katie Hyslop is a reporter with The Tyee covering education and youth issues.

[Editor’s note: Over a period of seven months in 2020 and 2021, two children were horrifically abused, one fatally, while in a foster care placement near Chilliwack. The Representative for Children and Youth is currently investigating the case.

While we wait for the results of that probe, The Tyee is examining systemic issues inside the Ministry of Children and Family Development that have been flagged for years. Our previous story in this series explored B.C.’s low safety compliance rates for foster care placements.]

[Content warning: This story includes graphic details of child abuse.]

A recently retired social worker says she is struggling to understand how two children who were horrifically abused in foster care were not visited by child welfare workers for seven months.

But Laura Jones says child welfare teams across British Columbia have been poorly staffed for years and workforce gaps have gotten worse since the COVID-19 pandemic.

“I'm pretty shocked, as a social worker, that somebody wouldn't have seen these kids earlier,” Laura Jones told The Tyee. “Unless they have no staff, which is possible.”

It’s not a new complaint: in 2015, B.C.’s child welfare watchdog, the Representative for Children and Youth, warned that staffing problems were so bad that social workers are often not able to meet the ministry’s own child protections standards — standards that exist to protect vulnerable kids.

In fact, staffing problems have been raised over and over again in many reports and reviews, often written after the deaths of children in care. Throughout this story, we highlight recommendations made in some of those past reports urging that workloads be lighter and more time be created for social workers to work with vulnerable kids and families.

Before she stopped working for the Ministry of Children and Family Development in 2020, Jones said, she was aware of some offices in northern B.C. having to temporarily close because of lack of child welfare staff. The BC General Employees’ Union, the union that represents MCFD social workers, has tracked a 10 per cent decline in the number of frontline social workers between March 2020 and December 2022. The BCGEU says there are currently 300 fewer workers compared to frontline staffing levels in 2000, representing an 8 per cent decline.

Details of the abuse of the two children in a Lake Errock foster care home were first revealed on June 16 during a sentencing hearing in provincial court. Judge Peter La Prairie wrote that the two foster children, an 11-year-old boy and his sister, were repeatedly beaten, starved, confined, compelled to do strenuous exercises and forced to eat dog food and their own feces. La Prairie described the prolonged and repeated abuse “torture” that occurred in “a house of horrors” where one sibling of the two children, as well as the biological children of the foster parents, also lived.

The boy, fragile and emaciated, died in February 2021 after being hit and thrown to the ground by the foster mother. La Prairie sentenced each foster parent to 10 years in jail after they pled guilty to charges of manslaughter and aggravated assault.

The names of the children and foster parents are protected by a court publication ban.

The boy, who had multiple congenital health problems, was removed from school by his foster parents in September 2020. After a July 2020 visit, no MCFD social worker visited the boy and his siblings for a period of seven months, a time of repeated abuse for the boy and his younger sister.

While various COVID restrictions were in place at the time, they did not prevent social workers from visiting children in foster care, The Tyee has confirmed with the ministry. The ministry says several workers have now been fired for failing to follow policies requiring that children in care be seen regularly by a social worker.

The Representative for Children and Youth is currently investigating the case — an investigation the representative could not start until the criminal case had concluded.

One of those issues is the high caseloads and constant staffing challenges in MCFD child welfare offices throughout B.C.

The Tyee previously reported that MCFD’s own practice audits show shockingly low compliance rates for basic safety checks — including foster care home visits and criminal record checks for caregivers — in all 13 service delivery areas in B.C.

However, East Fraser — the region where the abuse took place — had the second-lowest compliance rate of all audited areas in the province.

Jones, the retired MCFD social worker, said she started working at the ministry in 1998 and retired in 2014. She came back to work part time from 2018 to 2020.

Jones said she has been closely tracking the news stories about the East Fraser abuse case and wonders what part of the system broke down to allow the abuse to go unnoticed. She said most child welfare teams include one team leader and between six and eight staff.

“I'm thinking, ‘Where was the team leader in this?’ As a social worker and as a team leader you sit down at least monthly with your workers and go through their caseloads and talk about each case,” Jones said.

That process should have highlighted any gaps, such as home visits that had not been done: “You'd be saying, ‘You need to go and visit this family,’” Jones said.

But Jones knows that currently, some offices “essentially have no staff,” meaning that workers only have the capacity to deal with immediate crises.

“If no one calls in with the crisis, then you might not deal with it,” Jones said.

MCFD is dealing with high levels of frontline staff burnout, Jones said, because child welfare workers are handling so many cases that they often can’t do the parts of the job that make it rewarding: supporting vulnerable families and kids.

Instead, the job today means constantly “dealing with conflict” and “unhappy people,” Jones said. The stress is leading to burnout and workers quitting. Meanwhile, MCFD has been slow to fill vacancies.

In an emailed statement to The Tyee, ministry staff said child protection workers on average handle 18 cases at a time. Caseload is not an accurate measure of workload, they noted, because of the varying level of complexity of cases and geographies workers have to cover.

There are no caseload limits for MCFD frontline workers. A 2009 edition of the Aboriginal Operational and Practice Standards and Indicators document, which the ministry applied to Delegated Aboriginal agencies, had guidelines indicating social worker caseloads should not exceed 20 cases each. However, they were not enforceable, and a more recent version of the standards has no caseload guidelines at all.

In an interview with The Tyee in June, Shelly Johnson, a former MCFD social worker and current associate professor of education and social work at Thompson Rivers University, looks to the caseload guidelines from the Child Welfare League of America.

“If you have 13 to 15 children that you’re supposed to see on a regular basis, maybe you can do that,” she said, citing the league’s recommendations.

“But if you have 30 to 40 children that you’re to see on a regular basis, even if you just saw one a day, that would be more than one a day. With all the other competing demands, I just don’t know how that’s possible.”

Judy Fox-McGuire is a vice-president of the BC General Employees' Union, the union that represents MCFD social workers. She agreed with Jones’ description of frontline social work at the ministry: “It's just the same story, every office I go to. ‘There's not enough people, I'm stretched really thin, I'm working way too many hours and I can't complete the amount of tasks that are expected of me in a day.’”

Under the pressing demands of the job, Jones and Fox-McGuire said social workers often don’t have time to fill out all of the required paperwork that is required to keep track of their cases. An onerous computer system, first introduced in 2012, has added to the paperwork pressure. That’s one reason the practice audit compliance rates are so low, said Fox-McGuire and Jones.

But Fox-McGuire acknowledged that without a paper trail, there is no way of knowing whether the routine foster care background checks and site visits are happening.

“That's the problem — you’re so busy trying to keep children safe that you don't have time to record that you did a criminal record check,” Fox-McGuire said. “Then things get missed because you assume that somebody at some point did a criminal record check, but it's not on the file.”

Low audit compliance rates leave the public with the impression that social workers aren’t doing their jobs, which isn’t fair or accurate, says Michael Crawford, president of the BC Association of Social Workers.

“They want MCFD to stand up and say, ‘The problem here is you don’t have enough staff because we’re not paying enough money to recruit the right kind of people here” and workloads are too high, he said, adding the ministry is losing social workers to Alberta, where there are better working conditions and higher salaries.

“And stop leaving the public with the impression that social workers are directly responsible for these kinds of harms.”

MCFD told The Tyee via email that audit results are used to develop action plans “to build on identified practice strengths and lay out measurable strategies for improvement.” Ministry oversight has also expanded to ensure workers are following ministry policies regarding visiting with kids in their care, and completing caregiver screenings and home visits.

Audits will soon include qualitative measures, as well as quantitative, like interviewing kids and youth in ministry care, the ministry added.

“The information that is collected from audit processes is used to improve service, and to plan and implement changes that will strengthen practice and lead to better outcomes for children and youth,” the emailed statement reads.

As for staffing levels, MCFD maintains they have been hit hard by the same “demographics” and “changing labour industry” that are impacting other ministries and the provincial labour pool more broadly.

Efforts to increase staff have paid off, however, with a 16 per cent increase in overall child protection staffing since March, including hiring an additional 33 guardianship/child protection workers, for a total of 1,028. MCFD added they are focusing on hiring more administrative support staff in offices, as well as increasing the number of social workers and assistants in rural and remote locations, including by temporarily flying workers into underserved communities.

Fox-McGuire said the BCGEU and the ministry created a working group to jointly work on improving the staffing challenges, but that working group mostly focused on the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020 and 2021 and then was on hiatus because of collective bargaining.

The working group is now meeting again, Fox-McGuire said, and is focused on recruiting and retaining social workers.

“We really have to find the answer here, because I've been warning the ministry for a long time: things are bad for social workers.”

Jones said she recalls a period in 2005 when she and some other social workers took part in a pilot program to dramatically reduce their caseloads.

“The whole idea was that you worked with the family and they wouldn't come back into the [MCFD] system,” she said.

“You developed relationships, you made sure they got the services. You spent more time with them and it was really rewarding.”

Despite the positive outcomes, that pilot program didn’t last long, Jones said.

“There was a time where you had a smaller case load and you actually did social work — and families actually liked you.”

Next in this series: We look at calls to regulate social workers and B.C.’s practice of allowing non-social workers to work in child welfare.  [Tyee]

Read more: Rights + Justice, Housing

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