Children and Family Minister Mary Polak says she's proud of her record and not looking to change posts any time soon.
Mary Polak disputed that the Children and Family Development Ministry she heads is hard-pressed by budget cuts and slow to implement recommendations made by a four-year-old independent investigation into breakdowns in B.C.'s child welfare system.
Polak's wide-ranging defence of her ministry was delivered on May 13 after an article published in The Tyee quoted current and former frontline child protection social workers who said heavy workloads and strained resources made their jobs difficult to do adequately.
Polak also sought to clarify her government's dispute about sharing cabinet documents with Representative For Children and Youth Mary Ellen Turpel-Lafond. Her arguments (see sidebar) failed to sway the court, which, the day after Polak spoke with The Tyee, ruled against the BC Liberal government.
Polak said she wants frontline child protection workers to know she is fully supportive of their position in the "hardest job in government."
"It's important for me to be defending the work that our frontline people do everyday and make sure they understand that they do have a minister that supports them," she says.
Why then hasn't MCFD hired on more than 17 new frontline worker positions since 2001? And why isn't her ministry replacing workers who retire, quit, or go on leave? Because it's hard to do.
"This is not an easy job, and it takes a very special person to be able to do that job. So when we look at our rural and remote areas, we are doubly challenged because not only is the role challenging, but also it's challenging just to have people who've been to those areas," said Polak.
She added since the Liberals came to power, staffing levels in the North have gone from 55 per cent to 90 per cent -- despite being a rural area -- and the number of kids in care has dropped by 1,600 because of a focus on family mediation and conferences instead of taking children into care.
What about the high caseload of 35 active cases or more for child protection social workers? Polak says the average caseload is a constant 22.
That figure doesn't ring true to Tracey Young, who worked for the MCFD from 2000 to 2008 and was quoted in the previous Tyee article.
"Caseloads far exceed 22 in most areas of practice in MCFD. That might be some numbers for intake teams, which should be even lower as this is very high-crisis and high-need intervention work with families," Young told The Tyee in an email after hearing Polak's statements.
"It would have truly been a dream to have a caseload of 22 when I worked in MCFD, it was always around 30 cases, with emergency coverage of other workers caseloads as necessary."
Cuts or scratches?
While some reports, including the government's own Budget 2010 Fiscal Plan, say the MCFD budget is frozen until 2012/2013, Polak asserts this isn't so. In fact, the budget increased by $12 million last year, and by $9.5 million this year.
Some of the increases include an increased amount of money in contracts, grants, and payments to families, and Polak adds they avoided cuts to frontline services.
However, ministry operating costs, salaries and benefits have been cut since last year, and $5 million will also be cut from contract services -- which is only one per cent of their previous $825 million budget, but a budget that provides the bulk of outreach and prevention work in the ministry. Another $5 million will be redirected to aboriginal services from non-aboriginal services, as the majority of children in the system are First Nations.
Hands Tied: Child Protection Workers Talk About Working In, and Leaving, B.C.'s Child Welfare System, a report issued by Pivot Legal Society last year, counted 185 full-time equivalency positions cut by Polak's ministry in 2009. Polak said that number represents not frontline child protection workers, but administrative positions.
Yet those are the very positions that help ease a social worker's caseload, points out Young.
"When we had social work assistants, they were able to do particular aspects of the work that would take away some of the administrative burdens, such as doing referrals for things, setting up visits. But when you don't have that kind of support, then all of that is on you," said Young.
Polak stands by her previous assertions that all 62 of the Hughes recommendations have been implemented -- with a few exceptions.
"Things that are no longer on the table [are], for example Aboriginal agencies, that we all know was something that fell apart because the First Nations were not willing to go forward with it," she says.
"Also there are other recommendations that are ongoing and will continue to be ongoing, such as quality assurance initiatives."
But Turpel-Lafond says that's not the case. The representative is currently in the process of producing a report on the status of the recommendations, which was due last year but delayed due to "similar issues" that led to the recent court order.
"I think I can just be very clear to say the work is not completed," says Turpel-Lafond.
Polak believes this disagreement is down to a difference of interpretation of implemented, and a lack of information on the representative's part.
"It's based on information that she was able to put together and we believe that she didn't consider much of the information we provided to her," says Polak.
Capped, not cancelled
Polak stressed that The Child in the Home of a Relative Program, which The Tyee reported had been scrapped, has only been capped. And she emphasized that the 4,400 children currently enrolled are not the responsibility of MCFD -- her ministry just pays for them.
"[They're under the ministry of] Housing and Social Development because it is an income assistance program, it's not a child welfare program," says Polak.
"We believe quite strongly, based on the evidence, that there are far greater needs represented in those cases than simply a financial need. So those folks have the opportunity if they wish to seek other supports from [MCFD] without jeopardizing their current status [with Housing]."
While families currently enrolled won't lose their place in the program, it's no longer available to new families, who will instead be enrolled in the new Extended Family Program.
Aboriginal plan late but coming
Polak acknowledged that her ministry is running late in framing a plan to better deal with child protection issues in Aboriginal communities. Though the Indigenous Child at the Centre Action Plan, slated to replace Aboriginal agencies, is a year behind schedule in finalizing the document, let alone implementation, Polak said she isn't worried.
She said she is more concerned with making changes that will stick, not ones that happen quickly -- an idea she takes from social workers she meets across the province.
And while Ministry turnover at the top level has been high, with three ministers since 2006, she said that stops with her.
"I know there's a reputation for ministers not wanting to be in this spot, but when the premier asked what I was interested in, I told him I wanted this ministry and I was very pleased when he decided to take me up on that," she said.
"[Former minister] Tom Christensen was a long serving minister, I hope I am."