Sunday, March 1, 2009

Child Welfare: Spin & Reality

Lots of media this week on a leaked MCFD report called "Child in Care Cost Driver Analysis. " The most pertinent quote in the whole thing is:

"Overall costs of children-in-care expenditures are increasing at rates beyond inflation and beyond the ministry's capacity to continue to fund within existing budgets."

What are the real issues:
-The impacts of previous cuts when the current government came into power. Everything has unfolded from those cuts and the ensuing and neverending "re-organization".
-Underfunding - a government that doesn't listen to its' own people, or outside stakeholders and advocates about how the initial cuts would play out, where the holes were and where the dam was starting to burst. Treasury Board's bean counters run MCFD, just like every other Ministry.
-An ideology of the current public administration that wants to devolve, privatize, de-centralize and position itself itself at arm's length from the messy world of child protection and child welfare in general.
- Too many of those in senior positions in MCFD who have never actually worked in the BC child welfare system (or in any CW system), and the idea that managerial skills and expertise are generic and will work the same in child welfare and social services as they do elsewhere.

Other issues -
- Demographics - aging populations making it difficult to recruit and retain foster parents. -
- Younger generations of individuals who are less interested in the difficult, 24/7 low pay work of fostering children.
- Offloading costs of care onto foster parents and exceeding MCFD guidelines for numbers of children in homes.
- More complex special needs of children coming into care because they've been living in poverty and not received protection and support until problems becomes much more significant.
- Applicants for fostering being turned down by MCFD and being accepted by contract resources. - Transfer of foster homes to Aboriginal delegated agencies. Is the funding being transferred as well?

Some questions we might want to be asking are who sat on the working group, how were they selected, what stakeholders were selected for consultation, when was the report actually completed? Was it submitted in draft form and then edited to suit the needs of the administration? Who edited and approved the final copy?

Cuts to MCFD Staff

As to the planned cuts to positions within MCFD, which has been a difficult number to actually nail down definitively, the organization has set out clearly it is not looking at cutting frontline social workers. It's Service plan and Resource summary (page 19) state that the cuts will occur in Provincial Services, Executive and Support Services. Anyone who knows this government knows that there is room for cuts in those areas. How cuts to senior bureacrats is going to translate into even more children at-risk is pure speculation at this point. Until there are actual cuts to frontline social workers, positions and administrative support positions I think the most prudent position is a "wait and see" one.

It's time to stop polarizing, attacking and painting grim stories of what "might" happen. What can be seen in the exercise of the iternal Cost Driver Analysis report is that MCFD is trying to analyze issues, make projections of emerging issues and needs based on consultation and analysis. That's a BIG step forward in a Ministry that, under several different administrations, has simply thrown money at things and hoped something works and they can stay out of the public eye and not be attacked by the media and angry stakeholders.

Fundamentally, the problem is the same as it always has been - is BC's child welfare system being adequately funded? Are those in senior leadership positions experienced and knowledgeable enough about BC's child welfare system and what is needed?
Is the funding that is being provided being administered and utilized in the best possible ways? Are there ways to create a more cost efficient and effective child welfare system that meets its' mandate better? Is the child welfare system placing children's needs as paramount?

Child welfare system 'in crisis'
Lindsay Kines and Rob Shaw, Times Colonist. February 25, 2009.

Failing children, failing the public

Editorial. Times Colonist. February 26, 2009.

The issue is not that the government is stumbling in its efforts to look after children in its care. Challenges in such a complex, demanding area are inevitable.

The real questions are raised by its failure to acknowledge the problems or demonstrate that it is dealing with them effectively.

The NDP questioned Children and Families Minister Tom Christensen this week over an internal ministry report that found significant problems in residential care for the most vulnerable children -- families whose families are unable to care for them.

Costs have been increasing rapidly, without a corresponding improvement in outcomes for the children. The number of foster parents had fallen by eight per cent over the previous two years, the report found. On Vancouver Island, the drop was 14 per cent.

One result was that one in eight foster homes on the Island were forced to take in more children than the ministry's policies prescribed. Children with serious behavioural or emotional problems were in unsuitable placements. More children were forced into group homes or other special settings because there was no alternative, even though the option was worse for the children and far more expensive.

As a result, problems increased through the system. Foster homes needed more support, which social workers didn't have time to provide. That led more caregivers to quit in frustration. Overburdened front-line social workers couldn't do their jobs. More than 70 per cent of children in care did not have the required plans in place for their futures, for example.

The report identified some of the causes. A larger percentage of the more than 9,000 children in care have high needs. Foster parents are aging. Pay has lagged behind comparable positions.

Group home workers dealing with potentially dangerous children are paid $12 an hour and can earn more working in retail in many communities.

And factors outside the ministry played a role. Schools, for whatever reason, were increasingly dealing with problem students -- even very young ones -- by suspending them, forcing their daytime care onto the ministry. (Which adds urgency to this week's recommendation from the representative for children and youth that each school name a staff member responsible for working on the progress of children in care who attend.)

All this meant the ministry budgets were inadequate to provide needed care.

It is a useful report, the kind of self-examination the ministry, or any organization, needs to be doing.

But Christensen's response was discouraging. He did not deal directly with questions about the report, or the ministry's actions as a result of its findings. He simply repeated claims that the ministry's spending is going up.

But the child and family development budget -- which includes children in care -- is to be increased by less than one-quarter of one per cent next year. Over three years, the total increase is 1.1 per cent. The number of workers is to be cut from 3,350 to 3,150.

All at a time when the ministry's own review found children's lives and futures are being damaged by inadequate funding.

The government, on our behalf, has stepped in to take on the very difficult task of acting as family for these children. Few families would make children suffer unnecessarily.

Child care "system in crisis" starved in budget

Paul Willcocks, February 27, 2009. Paying Attention.

Balancing the budget at the expense of kids in care

Paul Willcocks, February 27, 2009. Paying Attention.

The budget for child and family services is effectively frozen in the budget, with token increases averaging less than one-half per cent per year.

Yet a ministry working group reported last year that children are already being hurt - and social workers swamped - because of inadequate residential care for many of the more than 9,000 children in care. A Times Colonist editorial looks at the betrayal.


Advocate: Job cuts at children's ministry pose threat to vulnerable kids

LINDSAY KINES, Times Colonist. February 19, 2009.


The ministry's $1.4-billion budget will increase by just one per cent this year, and government documents show a loss of 200 positions over the next three years.

Children's Minister Tom Christensen said in an interview yesterday that the jobs will be lost in the "back-room" or administrative side of the ministry.

"We're going to focus very much on ensuring that we continue to recruit for our front-line positions," he said.

The ministry currently has about 160 vacancies, and nearly 300 people are eligible for retirement over the next three years. "So the reality here is we're not intending to lay people off," Christensen said.

From Hansard - Debates: Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Carole James: My question is to the Premier. Why did he break his promise to the most vulnerable children of British Columbia? Why, once again, has he failed children in B.C.?

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