When something goes wrong with a child-welfare case, the system comes under criticism. That stings those who are on the front lines: social workers. However, the failures stem not from the work they do, but from the work they can’t do because of a lack of resources.
Mary Ellen Turpel-Lafond, B.C.’s children and youth representative, has released a report that says social workers failed to protect a 10-year-old boy from his mother, who struggled with addictions. The boy was put in the care of his maternal grandparents with the directive that he not be left alone with his mother. He was severely injured in a car crash on an outing with his mother and her boyfriend. Five years later, he continues to suffer from the effects of those injuries.
Turpel-Lafond said the case illustrates the child-welfare system’s flawed response to the problem of parental addictions.
“When it comes to social work, protection of the child’s best interest should trump everything else,” says her report, Children at Risk: The Case for a Better Response to Parental Addiction.
Social workers are keenly aware of that, says Doug Kinna, vice-president of the social information and health component of the B.C. Government and Service Employees Union. “They just don’t have enough resources to do the work they are mandated to do.”
In February, Turpel-Lafond issued a report concerning the suicide of a 14-year-old girl living on a rural First Nations reserve. The girl, who had suffered abuse and lived with a violent and mentally ill mother, had repeatedly sought help, but was let down by all those who should have helped her.
One social worker in the region was doing the job of seven, Turpel-Lafond said.
And therein lies much of the problem.
“[Social workers] have an incredible load,” said Kinna. “The ministry pretty much relies on free overtime to get the work done.
“It’s frustrating. When I tell them to quit doing free overtime, they say they can’t. They just want to be sure the kids are safe. I think the ministry takes advantage of that.”
Being a social worker in the child-welfare system can be a stressful job at the best of times.
“They never know what they’re going to run into when they go out,” said Kinna. “Something that can seem fairly innocuous can turn into a horror show.”
In addition to heavy loads, MCFD social workers must make difficult choices. If they take too many children away from families, they go against the ministry’s emphasis on keep families together. Leaving children with families involves risks.
The B.C. government has the unenviable task of balancing the budget; nevertheless, every effort should be made to ensure MCFD social workers have sufficient support and resources to do their jobs.
That’s difficult to do within the ministry’s budget, but perhaps part of the solution can be found in other budgets. Is the $26 million a year spent by the minister of citizens’ services and open government on “communications and public engagement,” for example, more important than the safety of a child? Trimming 10 per cent from that ministry’s $260-million budget for “integrated workplace solutions” would hire quite a few social workers.
As with past issues, Stephanie Cadieux, minister of children and family development, said her office will work with Turpel-Lafond and is already “strengthening our efforts in this area and strengthening our practice at the front line.”
For the sake of the children, social workers need relief. They have had to be flexible, but when flexibility reaches the point of being stretched too thin, bad things happen.
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