Hands Tied

B.C.’s child protection workers are leaving their jobs at an alarming rate. For the children and families most impacted by the system, these front line workers are the face of the Ministry of Children and Family Development (“MCFD”).  Their jobs involve the critical tasks of assessing immediate child safety concerns, connecting families with support services, and deciding when a child needs to be removed from a home. For children and families involved with the child protection system, turnover means building new relationships, unpredictability and delays.

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Using the law as a catalyst for positive social change, Pivot Legal Society works to improve the lives of marginalized communities.

The impacts of turnover in a ministry that lost over 10 percent of its staff each year between 2002 and 2006 are aggravated by the disproportionate amount of sick leave used by MCFD employees. In 2007, sick days at MCFD averaged out to 12.39 days per employee, significantly more than the 8.55 day average across the government. Findings from this study suggest that work-related stress and burnout have negative affects on child protection workers’ health and well-being.
In 2009, Pivot Legal Society asked child protection workers formerly employed with the MCFD to complete a survey about their experiences with the Ministry in order to examine retention issues and to gather their insights into how the system could better address the needs of both employees and families. In all, 109 respondents participated in this study. This study focuses on the reasons that employees working at the MCFD are leaving their jobs. However, the results have far-reaching implications for the child welfare system as a whole. Social workers in this study described a crisis-driven and underresourced system that does not afford most workers the opportunity to engage in quality social work practice; instead social workers struggled to do too much with too little.
Social workers reported leaving child protection work for four main reasons: unmanageable caseloads, a lack of confidence in all levels of leadership and management, high stress levels, and a lack of preventative and supportive resources for children and families. The majority of social workers in this study indicated that reduced caseloads and enhanced services and supports for families would have been “very likely” to have kept them from leaving the Ministry.
Although “the best interests of the child” is the overarching principle guiding child protection work, social workers in this study did not feel that they could consistently act in children’s best interests. Forty-nine percent of respondents felt that they were only “sometimes” able to act in the best interests of children, with a further nine percent indicating that they were “rarely” or “never” able to act in the best interests of children. Over 65 percent of survey respondents reported they could “rarely” or “never” give adequate attention to each child or family on their caseload while fulfilling their reporting requirements. Respondents explained that high workloads, onerous paperwork, insufficient resources, and ineffective leadership impacted their ability to work effectively with children and families.

Social workers who took part in this study indicated that they are often unable to perform their job in accordance with the guiding and service delivery principles set out in the Child, Family and Community Services Act (“CFCSA”). The guiding principles and service delivery principles in the CFCSA promise a family-centred approach to child protection that supports parents, extended family networks and communities to care for children safely while respecting the inherent value of Aboriginal traditions and cultural diversity.

Nearly half of respondents indicated that there are “rarely” or “never” adequate preventative or supportive services for families. Only 29 percent of respondents indicated that they could “always” or “usually” fully explore options for less disruptive measures before the removal of a child. The concern over the lack of services was most pronounced among respondents from Aboriginal service teams, 63 percent of whom indicated that there were “rarely or “never” adequate services. The findings from this study are not unique. Instead, they once again illustrate the government’s failure to create conditions that will ensure that the child protection system can live up to its responsibility to children and families in B.C.

In 2008, the MCFD released Strong, Safe and Supported: A Commitment to B.C.’s Children and Youth. This document, outlining the MCFD’s new approach to supporting children and families, is the most recent in a long line of vision documents committing the Ministry to important principles such as prevention, family support, and integration of Aboriginal perspectives into planning and decision making. Like many that have come before, this document is heavy on lofty principles but lacks a clear strategy for implementation. The respondents in this study have made it clear – if the provincial government intends to live up to its latest commitment to B.C.’s children and youth, the MCFD needs the resources to reduce caseloads, increase preventative and supportive services for families, and support leaders who instill confidence in workers.