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Why Are Ministry Child Welfare Workers in BC Exempt from External Oversight?

Legislation requires social workers to register with an independent regulatory body. Unless they work for the MCFD.

Katie Hyslop 9 Nov 2023The Tyee

Katie Hyslop writes about education and youth issues for The Tyee.

When Misty Kelly tried to file a formal complaint against a Ministry of Children and Family Development child welfare worker in 2018, she went to the British Columbia College of Social Workers.

Kelly was in a custody dispute with her ex-husband, who she says had begun a friendship with a current MCFD employee. That employee was also the former spouse of Kelly’s current husband and was in an ongoing custody dispute with him. Kelly was concerned that the ministry employee had used her child welfare training to help tip the scales of the custody disputes in the employee’s and Kelly’s ex-husband's favours.

Kelly wanted to lodge a complaint against the MCFD employee, who she thought was a registered social worker. What she didn’t realize, however, was that the MCFD no longer refers to its frontline staff as social workers.

And for good reason: the provincial Social Workers Act exempts ministry staff from mandatory registration with the college, which promotes and supports the profession and acts as an oversight and disciplinary body for social workers in B.C.

Instead, Kelly had to lodge a complaint with the ministry itself. The complaint went nowhere, according to Kelly, and both she and her current spouse were not granted custody of their respective children. Kelly’s allegations have not been tested in court.

“MCFD is the only one that can look into it,” she said, adding the provincial Office of the Ombudsperson is an option if the ministry complaint process doesn’t work. But the ombudsperson cannot get involved in a case that’s before the courts.

Registration with the college generally requires an educational background in social work. On the flip side, changes in ministry hiring practices in 2019 mean that the MCFD does not require that same educational background for its frontline child welfare staff.

The Tyee has recently reported that MCFD employees are failing to document their work with kids and families. A former MCFD worker was recently convicted for stealing half a million dollars from children in care. And, most tragically, an 11-year-old boy died at the hands of his foster parents after the ministry did not visit him or his sister in the home for seven months.

It is unknown if the workers in the recent child death case were registered with the college or held social work degrees.

But Michael Crawford, president of the BC Association of Social Workers, believes there would be fewer incidents like this if all frontline ministry child welfare staff had a social work education and were registered with — and therefore accountable to — the British Columbia College of Social Workers.

“There's no outside scrutiny, or superintending of the social work practice within the ministry,” he said.

The Social Workers Act, Crawford contends, should be amended to remove the exception for MCFD employees.

MCFD recently conducted a series of public engagement events around the oversight of social workers in the province. A “What We Heard” report of feedback they received from social workers, the public and stakeholder groups is expected to be made public later this fall.

The feedback they received will “help contribute to further analysis and policy development and our understanding of the public need,” reads a ministry web page about the consultations, which ended in January 2023.

‘The eyes and ears of the courts’

MCFD frontline workers in child protection and guardianship hold a lot of power over families like hers, Kelly says. The former investigate child protection cases and the latter are responsible for kids and youth in government care.

“The MCFD workers are the eyes and ears of the courts. The judges really have no choice but to listen to them, because the judges are not going to go into people’s homes and interview them,” Kelly said.

Without independent oversight, Kelly said, this opens the door to the potential abuse of that power.

The Tyee requested an interview with Minister Mitzi Dean, but she was not made available. In an emailed statement to The Tyee, Dean says the ministry still prefers job candidates with social work, psychology, child and youth care, nursing, Indigenous studies and early childhood education backgrounds. After candidates are hired, they complete a six-week preparatory course with the ministry to train for the position.

“Other degrees may be permitted only in exceptional circumstances with the approval of the provincial director of child welfare,” Dean told The Tyee, adding that the 2019 change to education requirements for frontline workers was intended to increase employee recruitment and retention.

The other acceptable degrees include theology, criminology, sociology, education and anthropology. That’s a problem for Representative for Children and Youth Jennifer Charlesworth.

“Has anybody trained them how to work with kids? For example, somebody who’s done theology, I wouldn’t expect them to be doing the work after a six-week preparatory course. They would need a lot more assistance,” said Charlesworth.

But not everyone agrees mandatory registration with the college or hiring only people with a social work degree is necessary. Judy Fox-McGuire of the BC General Employees' Union, the union representing frontline MCFD child welfare workers, estimates half of that workforce has a social work degree.

While she believes a social work education or background is important for the job, Fox-McGuire says college registration is not what workers ask for.

The ministry could offer support to workers to attain a social worker degree after they are hired, Fox-McGuire said — a move she said she’d be in favour of.

“But that doesn’t mean that there’s not a place in the ministry for people who come from different backgrounds,” she added.

What we learn when we look at the past

Back in 1995, Justice Thomas Gove discovered a similar breakdown of B.C.’s child welfare employees’ education to today: less than 60 per cent of the province’s 1,400 workers had a social work degree.

Gove was in charge of an inquiry into the death of Matthew Vaudreuil, a five-year-old boy killed by his mother despite numerous interventions from child welfare workers over the years.

Included in the 118 recommendations in Gove’s report was the creation of the Ministry of Children and Family Development; a requirement that all ministerial frontline employees who work with children have at least a bachelor’s degree in social work, with a master's degree preferred; and the regulation of child-serving workers by a “self-governing professional body.”

Gove called on the government, then led by the NDP, to work with unions, the then-Ministry of Labour, Skills and Training, and schools of social work to create a condensed social work bachelor’s program to upgrade existing employees’ education.

The ministry created a 10-month condensed bachelor’s program and funded 90 employees $125,000 each in tuition, travel, child-care and wage expenses to complete it at universities across B.C.

Shelly Johnson was one of those employees.

“I was one of those social workers that came to the ministry right out of university, 21 years old, as a child protection worker,” said Johnson, who had a sociology degree at the time. Johnson is currently an associate professor in the faculty of education and social work at Thompson Rivers University.

“I got a letter that said I could remove children based on a child protection investigation. I could place a child for adoption, I could be a legal guardian for a child, I could give evidence in court. I had no understanding. And they didn’t send me for training for two years because of [a] hiring freeze.”

Johnson got her social work degree through this condensed program. But her cohort was the only one to do the program.

By February 1998, then-minister Penny Priddy had announced a freeze on the training program until the province could find a cheaper training option. That option never came and no more child welfare workers went through the program.

Dale Westin, a ministry official at the time, was quoted by the Vancouver Sun as saying the 300 to 400 employees who needed the training would be fine without the degree.

“We may not require it because they have been working in the ministry for so many years or have a similar education,” he said.

In 2019, MCFD expanded its accepted educational qualifications for new employees to include theology, sociology, criminology and anthropology.

This was the first change to ministry qualifications in 20 years.

“This change gives the ministry the flexibility to identify community-specific needs and hire appropriately by considering an applicant’s combination of education and experience in relevant fields,” a ministry spokesperson told The Tyee via email.

It also was intended to fulfil a recommendation from Chief Ed John, himself a former MCFD minister, in his 2016 report “Indigenous Resilience, Connectedness and Reunification — from Root Causes to Root Solutions,” which called on the MCFD to review entry-level qualifications for frontline workers.

The change did not result in an increase in workers. Earlier this year, the BCGEU reported there are 300 fewer full-time frontline ministry staffers than there were in 2000, an eight per cent decline.

Who should oversee the MCFD’s frontline workers?

Most of the province’s social work professionals work outside the Children and Family Development Ministry, mainly in physical and mental health care, substance use services and private counselling practices. For them, the British Columbia College of Social Workers establishes a code of ethics, investigates complaints, corrects practice and can even strip someone of the ability to practise social work in B.C.

But for MCFD employees who fall under the act, it is the ministry that serves that function.

“The ministry is committed to ensuring ethical, professional and competent social work practice throughout B.C.,” Minister Dean told The Tyee via email.

But Crawford says exempting ministry employees from an act the ministry superintends is a conflict of interest.

“MCFD can hire, fire, train, set hours, tell people which policies to follow and not. But they shouldn’t be put in the place where they’re superintending someone’s practice,” he said.

An elderly man with carefully combed white hair looks at the camera. He is wearing a burnt orange collared shirt and brown thatched blazer. Behind him are a hanging photo and painting.
‘There's no outside scrutiny, or superintending of the social work practice within the ministry,’ says Michael Crawford, president of the BC Association of Social Workers. Photo submitted.

Both Crawford and Kelly would like to see the act transferred to the Ministry of Health, which oversees the Health Professions and Occupations Act that passed last year but is not yet in effect.

Crawford believes the Ministry of Health has the infrastructure required to oversee all social workers, including those employed by the MCFD. Kelly says she sees social work as a health-care profession.

In light of recent reports into systemic anti-Indigenous racism in B.C.’s health-care system, Johnson says she isn’t in favour of this solution.

“Health would even be less prepared,” she said. “What health-care workers are getting in terms of a background understanding of Indigenous issues, Indigenous history, there’s even less taught in the health curriculum than there is for sure in the social work curriculum.”

What careful oversight could prevent

Crawford believes that if MCFD frontline workers had to register with the British Columbia College of Social Workers, Robert Riley Saunders would have been prevented from becoming a child welfare worker.

Saunders, who was convicted and sentenced to five years in prison for stealing nearly $500,000 from the youth in his care — most of whom were Indigenous — faked his social work degree when he was hired by the province in 1996.

Crawford explained that the college of social work has a much more stringent process for checking credentials. “[The province] didn't check his credentials,” Crawford said. “The college doesn't say to the registrant, 'Could you just show me your degree?' during the Zoom call. They say, 'Contact your institution and then forward us a sealed copy of your transcript.'”

But Fox-McGuire says the ministry now has a process in place to prevent hiring another Saunders. “They have changed their policies,” she said.

While she says she isn’t against registration with the college, the issue is not one that is at top of mind for BCGEU members.

“The problems social workers [have] are about workload,” Fox-McGuire said.

Charlesworth agrees. “It’s one of the tools, but it's not something that’s a big selling feature. For me that would be, do these people have the capacity to do the job well and are they being held to account to ensure that they are increasing their professional development every year?” she said.

“Again I get back to the organization: Does it have good supervision? Does it have a good organizational culture that means that you do what you say you’re going to do?”

Charlesworth does support mandatory registration of social workers with the college. But she notes frontline MCFD positions no longer have the social worker title, are multidisciplinary and haven’t been covered solely by people with a social work background for a long time.

Degrees in child and youth care, education and counselling psychology or arts and counselling psychology were accepted education for frontline workers before 2019, Charlesworth added.

“There are simply not enough social workers being graduated to fill all the positions,” she said.

How requiring registration could impact MCFD workers

With its $281 annual fee for registrants, 40 hours of annual mandatory professional development and an exam entrance requirement, Fox-McGuire thinks forced registration with the college would hurt ministry recruitment and retention.

The college’s disciplinary system is also more public than the ministry’s, which unnerves members, she said.

“Their name could be posted on a disciplinary site. That’s very scary for a social worker,” Fox-McGuire said, adding MCFD already has an internal disciplinary process.

Organizations that regulate lawyers, doctors, teachers, mortgage brokers and investment dealers are just a few of the professions that publicly publish disciplinary decisions in B.C.

She says she is also concerned about a potential conflict between MCFD policies and procedures, and the code of ethics and standards of practice outlined by the British Columbia College of Social Workers. However, when asked, she could not cite an example of such a conflict.

Both Charlesworth and Fox-McGuire expressed concern that requiring college registration could be discriminatory towards Indigenous people working in child welfare.

“In an Indigenous community, they might not have an individual who has the degree, but they have incredibly wise, experienced Elders or matriarchs, or knowledge keepers or advisers that might not have the credentials, but definitely have the skills and knowledge,” Charlesworth said, adding there are credentialed Indigenous people in child welfare work, too.

But Johnson, who is First Nations of Saulteaux and Norwegian ancestry, says some of the delegated Aboriginal agencies under MCFD already have Elder positions that don’t require a formal social work background. They don’t perform frontline child protection work but still help support overall child welfare practices.

Still, Johnson sees barriers for all workers who don’t want to register with the college.

Johnson let her membership lapse after Edward Owen Berry, a former college board member and then-MCFD manager and foster parent, was charged with possession of child pornography in 2014. He was later sentenced to eight months in jail and two years’ probation.

“I expected that there would be a huge reaction from the board, and what I heard was crickets,” said Johnson, adding that as an MCFD manager in northern B.C., Berry would have been responsible for hundreds of Indigenous children.

“It just stunned me that here was someone that sat in judgment of other social workers’ practice, and it seemed like there was silence from the board when it was one of their own.”

The Tyee requested an interview with college registrar Ann Joseph, but she was not made available. Instead, Joseph responded to a question about why they did not release a statement following Berry’s charges by email, noting the disciplinary actions the college took against Berry are available online.

The site notes Berry’s registration with the college expired Jan. 31, 2015, and the college conducted an investigation into his conduct in 2018 after he was convicted. As he was no longer registered with the college at the time, Berry agreed to never practise social work or seek registration with the college again.

Anecdotally, Johnson says she knows a social worker who has been waiting for the results of a college complaint process for a year. There has also been a high turnover rate in the college’s top role; it has cycled through five registrars and interim registrars over the past four years.

“It doesn’t leave me with a feeling of a significant amount of belief that this can be an impartial body, and that it is a well-functioning body,” she said.

Instead, Johnson would like to see community-based social work oversight bodies created in addition to the college, similar to how the First Nations court system works with colonial law courts in B.C.

“And even for it to be done in a talking circle format, where the person making the complaint and the individual that is being complained about would come and sit in a circle, if that’s possible, with others that have an oversight responsibility,” she said, adding it would be similar to a restorative justice program.

There would still have to be a “standardization of due process” between the local bodies, Johnson said. But there would be more flexibility to respond to complaints in a way that makes sense for each community.

“Because what works here in Kamloops could be quite different from what works in Comox, or downtown Vancouver or Prince George,” she said.

“I think a one-size-fits-all doesn’t exist.”

With files from Jen St. Denis.  [Tyee]

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