Saturday, November 26, 2011

Social Workers Acknowledged in the BC Legislature

Private Member Statement by MLA Claire Trevena
Hansard Debates, Nov. 14, 2011.

C. Trevena: When we talk about front-line workers, perhaps none are quite so front line as social workers. These are the people in our communities each day trying to make life a little better for individuals and for families. These are the people who have to deal with some of the aspects of life that many feel are impossible. Daily they are working with families who may be struggling with children and youth who are facing hardship.

Without even thinking about it, we as a society expect that they'll be there to help or to pick up the pieces. Without knowing the system, many people expect that there are social workers, active and busy, where now they have been replaced by call centre operators.
The social workers work with young and old, with the sick, with the healthy. Their services are not driven by income, although it is too often the poorest in society who need them the most.

Social workers have the horrible job of apprehending children, taking them away from their families for the child's safety. They have the job of working with teens who are trying to establish themselves independently. They're there for people with mental illness. They are the people who try to assist people to pick up the pieces. But far too often, they are themselves lost in the system.

You might find, Madam Speaker, that it is strange to describe these people — these professionals who work according to a professional code of ethics, who have professional standards of practice — as lost. But I do choose my words carefully. They are lost because their work, while absolutely necessary for our society and for our communities, goes unnoticed by too many in management. They are lost because their voices are often not being heard, sadly, until it is too late.

Social workers deal with fragile lives, many fragile lives, and their workload is extraordinary and very troubling. I am the critic for Children and Families, so I'll confine my remarks largely to the work reflected by that ministry, not the workloads of the social workers who are working with seniors or within the health care system, although they have very valuable work that they do too. But I raise this today in my private members' statement because I find it very troubling that the average caseload for a social worker who is working with children and youth with special needs is 150. That's 150 children and young people.

I've talked to some social workers whose caseload is 400. There are 365 days a year. There are weekends, and social workers are entitled to time off. There is no way that they could see every person, every young person on their caseload. Even with 150 — the average — it'd be impossible to visit everyone, let alone keep on top of what the concerns and problems are for each single child and young person.

Not every single child or youth on a social worker's caseload is in need of active intervention. Many have strong supportive families and other networks, but caseloads such as these do not allow social workers to assess the problems, to make an honest and fair judgment of those needs. Children and youth with special needs…. Special needs is not a designation given lightly. Those children need significant help to survive our very complex world.

For instance, having fetal alcohol spectrum disorder is not enough, unless there are other proven developmental disabilities. Physical disabilities have to be severe, and if they need significant help, so do their families. The social worker is supposed to be there to help them to navigate the system. But how can they, if there are 149 other children and young people also making demands?

I do not exaggerate when I say that this is a crisis waiting to happen. For all the goodwill in the world, for all the ethical practice and professional standards and simple hard work, no individual can keep up with a caseload that is the average for social workers in B.C. That means that a child or children are likely to fall through the cracks.

It happened recently when a young girl with Down syndrome was left alone with her dead mother. The social worker caseload was cited as a contributing factor. That should have been a wake-up call, but the conversations I've had with social workers have come after that incident, and they say that their caseload is simply unmanageable. When it's raised with management, they are told that they are in line with the rest of the province.

There appears to be, however, no real sense of what a social worker caseload is within the management hierarchy. I've tried to find out how busy they are through official lines, and it's the sort of thing you'd expect to be tracked — that a management system would know what their staff is doing, what they're facing on an aggregate and on a daily basis. Several months after my request, I'm still waiting for an answer.

Of course, one would expect the numbers to vary depending on the different areas being dealt with — for instance, child protection, literally looking after the safety of kids. You'd think that those numbers would be kept down. Compared to the numbers dealing with children and youth with special needs, they are low, but they're still, in many instances, quite frighteningly high.

One person I talked to had a caseload of 50 families. These are 50 families in distress, who are in need of intervention. Another social worker said that things in her office only changed when there was a child death. This isn't a way to manage social services. It's not the way to manage child welfare. I think it's quite terrifying to think that the only way change will happen is for a child to die, but it seems that this is the sorry answer that we have.

In child and youth mental health, the situation is similar. For child and youth, death in these instances is sadly too often suicide.

About a year ago I raised concerns in my constituency of North Island where there was a wait-list of 60 who needed child and youth mental health assistance. It's a scary number. That was started to be tackled, but now the pressure on the social workers has become so intense that there are now only two workers to deal with a caseload meant for six. 

I repeat that we do have a crisis waiting to happen. It's a preventable crisis.
Social services is about prevention as well as trying to fix problems, as well as about intervention. At the very core of prevention, the front-line workers, the people who can make that prevention happen, are facing huge pressures. Shortcuts are being made, and we need to see ways that we can tackle this to ensure that a crisis doesn't occur.

When a death occurs, we deal with that. We prevent that, and we see what we can do to prevent that crisis and make sure that the next stage doesn't happen.

In a report published last year by the Federation of B.C. Youth in Care Networks, it asked young people who are and who have been in care — so they've had a lot of dealings with social workers — to describe some of the problems in achieving permanency. Permanency is obviously a goal that is trying to be achieved for young people in care — that there is a permanent connection there.

One of the answers that these young people came up with who have been dealing with this is that social worker caseloads are too big. That's causing problems for young people who are in care to achieve that permanency. They are finding that social workers simply do not have the time to deal with their specific personal needs, and that's a huge sadness.

A better resource, Madam Speaker, is our people. We can and should invest in them at all levels. We should be making that investment in our social workers too.

Friday, November 11, 2011

Community Living: Doomed from the Beginning

Dear Editor:

Community Living B.C. was doomed from the very beginning. It was never about greater individual and family control and improved service delivery. People have a short memory about how it was that Community Living B.C. was created.

Doug Walls, Premier Gordon Campbell's relative by marriage, who was under investigation for fraud at the time, was the hand-picked architect for the creation of Community Living B.C. Walls would later go on to be convicted of fraud for cheque kiting. Minister Gordon Hogg from Children and Families stepped down from cabinet and Chris Haynes, the ministry's deputy minister, was fired because Walls had been given untendered ministry contracts (during a time he was being investigated by police) for which he did not produce a thing. The money simply disappeared.

As a former labour representative, I was involved in the devolution of community living services from direct government and transfer of staff to Community Living B.C., the new stand alone authority. There was never any monitoring, transparency or accountability built into the plan, and Community Living B.C. was no longer subject to the Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act since it was no longer part of direct government. [Note from editor, apparently they are still governed by FOIPPA].

Social workers with experience and expertise in working with children and adults with developmental disabilities (and their families) were replaced because Community Living B.C. designed a model that no longer provided case management. The work was designed to be quick, in and out, with no caseloads.

It soon became clear to the B.C. government that Community Living B.C. had not competently carried out Community Living B.C. children's services.

Therefore, after months of planning, on Oct. 31, 2009, children's services were transferred back to the Ministry of Children and Family Development and the millions of funding went with the services.

The ministry, to their credit, returned to a caseload model for children with disabilities, although social workers continue to experience grossly inflated case numbers for the most vulnerable and fragile children in B.C.

The work these social workers and community service providers perform every day is admirable and inspirational, and society owes them thanks for it.

Once children's services funding was gone, Community Living B.C. needed to find millions in "efficiencies" and savings.

Funding for services to adults began to be slashed, along with community social service work and jobs. At this point, over 60 group homes have been closed around B.C. In some cases, experienced and dedicated community social services workers have been replaced by people found through advertisements for homes shares on Craigslist.

At this point, it is not enough for a review to be completed of Community Living B.C. A full inquiry and financial audit will lift up the rock of Community Living B.C., and there will be many things that crawl out once the light of day shines down.

Persons with disabilities and their families deserve nothing less than for justice, dignity and human rights to prevail.

Tracey Young, Burnaby

Saturday, October 22, 2011

Investing in Social Infrastructure: Strategic & Effective Public Policy

I've come across some excellent articles and ideas I wanted to pass along. It's so frustrating to me that governments and other stakeholders don't understand that investing and strengthening the social infrastructure has so many benefits. There are so many people who are on the tipping point from a socio-economic perspective right now. We need to move fast to stop the increasing numbers of people who are being pulled down by the undertow. 

When governments strategically and adequately fund social, health and community services it benefits the recipients of those services directly by improving their quality of life, stability. participation in the labour market and other activities which benefit society.

We can't seem to get past the old school idea of infrastructure jobs as being building roads, bridges and structures. Those are important jobs and definitely contribute to our society but it is time to recognize that jobs in the social, health and community sector are of equal importance for a many reasons. One of those is the intrinsic gains and benefits to recipients, their families and communities. Another is the economic benefits of the jobs in these sectors in local communities and the larger economy of the province.

Watch the video: 
Baby boomers retire rich, young couples with kids stuck in economic squeeze: report

SASKATOON - A Canadian research institute says babyboomers are retiring as the wealthiest generation in history while couples with young children are stuck in an economic squeeze.

The Human Early Learning Partnership at the University of British Columbia released a report Tuesday calling on federal and provincial governments to spend $22 billion on social programs to fix a declining standard of living for young families.

It recommends funding a system that prevents parents from spending more than $10 a day on child care and allows for 18-month parental leaves from work.

Public policy professor Paul Kershaw, a self-professed crusader for families, released the findings in Saskatoon with colleagues from the University of Saskatchewan. He said he wants the report to be part of the Nov. 7 provincial election debate in Saskatchewan.

Betty Ann Adam, The StarPhoenix October 18, 2011
Canada needs a "New Deal for Families" to solve the enormous social and economic upheaval caused by soaring housing costs, creators of a study released Tuesday at the University of Saskatchewan say.

The generation raising children today has less money and time than Baby Boomers, despite a doubling of the Canadian economy since 1976, said Paul Kershaw, a family policy expert from the University of British Columbia.
The lack of time for children is showing up in a growing number of kindergarten pupils who are not ready for school. One in three are not ready in areas of social, emotional, and physical health or language and communications skills, Muhajarine said.

The solution is a "New Deal for Families," built on three major public policy changes, Kershaw argues.

The New Deal includes:
  • extending benefits for new parents to 18 months from 12 for all single and dual earner households, including self-employed and unemployed parents and should provide a minimum benefit that would eliminate poverty for families with children under 18 months, he said.
  • providing $10 per day childcare and finally, promoting flextime to help employees combine work and family, making them more productive while at work. 
  • providing incentives for employers to limit work weeks to 35 hours.
The status quo is costing the Canadian business community $4 billion per year, according to estimates reached by researchers in collaboration with British Columbia chartered accountants.
Kershaw believes the plan would control health care expenditures, control crime, reduce education spending and prepare a labour force that will be more job-ready when they graduate because they’re more school-ready at the outset.

Paul Kershaw. 
The business community gets it, why not governments? 
Vancouver Board of Trade (VBOT)

Monday, October 10, 2011

Homelessness Action Week - October 10 – 16, 2011.

Poverty is a weapon of mass destruction. Homelessness is a weapon of mass destruction. Unemployment is a weapon of mass destruction. – Dennis Kucinich

Starting today is a most important week of note, the week to StopHomelessness in Metro Vancouver. Hmm, maybe we can aim higher than that.

Find out more information here:

Learn more about the root causes of homelessness and about the solutions.
Volunteer at an event in your community.

In 2010, the Union of BC Municipalities (UBCM) passed a resolution calling on the province to adopt a comprehensive poverty reduction plan. 

BC has led Canada in child poverty for 8 years in a row and the BC government is holding fast on not creating a poverty reduction plan. 

Advocates and service organizations report there's been a "dramatic" increase in the number of women and children relying on the Union Gospel Mission for their meals. "The line-up was down the alley and around the block as hundreds more people than expected turned out for Thanksgiving dinner on Vancouver's downtown eastside."

As we head into municipal elections in November 2011, we can all do our part by asking candidates and parties what they plan to do to reduce/eliminate homelessness in our communities. There has been enough talk, it's time for action.

Here are some additional links:


Video: What is Poverty Costing Us in BC? 

SHARE Share the video at

LEARN Read the report at

TAKE ACTION Look up your MLA using the MLA Finder at and call, email, or visit their office (report in hand) to tell them that the cost of poverty is too high. Contact them while they’re in their home constituencies over the summer and let them know we want to see a poverty reduction plan in their party’s platform ahead of the next election.

TAKE MORE ACTION Join the call for a poverty reduction plan for BC, and get even more ideas from our Take Action page.

Government holds fast against provincial anti-poverty plan
Katie Hyslop September 29, 2011,

"We don't have a plan. We have a number of programs, some of them work, some don't, but if we had a plan we wouldn't see children living in deep, intergenerational poverty," Turpel-Lafond says, referring to the call for a provincial poverty reduction plan. B.C. is one of only three provinces that has resisted implementing a poverty reduction plan.

Monday, June 27, 2011

"Mom Dead, Mom Sleeping": Systemic Failure Hurts Children & Erodes their Human Rights

“This child led a life that was impoverished in every sense of the word”
- Mary-Ellen Turpel-Lafond - Representative for Children & Youth

Systemic neglect simply does not get worse than what happened to the 15 year old girl with Downs Syndrome who was left with her, impoverished mother, who died, while this vulnerable, completely dependent young woman was left with her mother's dead body for over a week.

The title of this blog post are the only words and voice this girl was able to have in all of this. This blog post is dedicated to her and to her brothers, who tried to get her help and were ignored and to their mother, whose life was filled with so much pain and
isolation. No-one should ever have to bear so many challenges alone.

BC's Representative for Children & Youth has released a special report on this situation, entitled, Isolated and Invisible: When children with special needs are seen but not seen examining the child and family involvement with MCFD and how such a tragedy could happen in BC.

This is a heartbreaking case on so many levels it is staggering for any reasonable citizen to consider the harm created by the failures of so many systems. Here is a breakdown of systemic failures contained in the life of just this one child.

One brother reported his concerns about his mothers abilities to care for his sister to MCFD, asking them to intervene. Although ill prepared to deal with his sister's special needs, the brave young man tried to intervene on behalf of his sister, because they knew firsthand the kind of risk she was at. He was told he must return his sister to their mother, whose drug and health issues were well established, or he would face complaints of kidnapping. Systemic failure.

The community that is so broken down that a sick mother and a fragile special needs girl were not seen, or missed by anyone for over a week. Many days passed and no-one looked into the trailer to see this beautiful and caring girl trying to tend to and curled up with her mother's dead and decomposing body. Lovingly trying to bring her food and medications, to revive her mother, while her own physical condition deteriorated through malnutrition, dehydration and sitting in a soiled and wet diaper for days. The emotional trauma and harm and inability to make any meaningful sense of what happened will live with this girl forever.
No meaningful sense could ever be made for this situation in a so-called civil society. Systemic failure.

The child protection system, in spite of attempts to investigate, simply did not care enough to act to protect this child because it is more concerned with keeping the numbers of children in care down. The two brothers grew up with their mother. They likely bear the scars of a childhood left to a parent with minimal capacity to meet their needs due to her own problems and issues, which could likely be found in her own childhood experiences. This is the cycle that the child protection system in BC does little to break and often contributes to by leaving children at-risk throughout their childhood, the only one they will have.
The paradigm has swung back and forth and in spite of reviews, children dying and being permanently harmed, childrens rights to safety and protection still takes a back seat to parents rights and even the child protection system will seek to protect itself over children rights. Systemic failure.

One of the hardest lessons I learned working in child protection and I learned it quickly, is that love is not all children need from parents. I've never worked with a parent that did not love their child. I have worked with many parents that, mostly through no "fault" of their own, simply did not have the capacity to be a minimally adequate parent. It may surprise most people that the bar is set so very low for children - the standard is "good enough." But there is no definition beyond this. Situations like this demonstrate that the bar is set unconscionably low for children in the child protection system in BC in 21st century.

I happen to believe children deserve a much, much higher standard and that it is the obligation and duty of our province and our country to provide that in a civil society.

The welfare ministry's heartless policy of cutting people off who have not been heard from is an example of the impacts of service re-design in which individuals no longer belong to a single caseload. Human beings have simply become a number on the welfare rolls, a number to be cut if possible. I suspect this mother had been on income assistance, or disability for many years, yet when she was not in contact with her local office, this did not get flagged as unusual, although their records would also have indicated there was a minor child in the home. That system took no steps to report any concerns to MCFD, CLBC or law enforcement for follow up.
Systemic failure.

The school that this girl attended, beyond making phone calls, did not apparently take any action when she did not show up for school, likely because her absences became normalized, due to the inability of her mother to consistently get her to school. This was a red flag that was ignored and MCFD should have been called.
Systemic failure.

As the report details, after the girl was found, her former respite worker was called to come pick her up. MCFD did not even provide adequate resources to the child then. The child was not admitted to hospital and was still wearing her filthy clothing when this kind soul picked her up. She purchased necessities for this traumatized and wounded girl out of her own pocket because MCFD did not provide her with one dime to meet the immediate needs of this child. Systemic contempt and failure.

This latest report from the Representative articulates what many who work with young people with special needs have known for many, many years - people with disabilities are rendered invisible and are isolated, while living surrounded by community and the wealth of this province and its well paid Ministers, bureaucrats and elected officials. People with disabilities are shut in and shut out of meaningful participation in society, marginalized and socially excluded.
Systemic failure.

The CYSN social worker said she had a caseload of more than 200 families when the
transfer of special needs services from CLBC to the ministry occurred in October 2009. This is a little known secret to the world outside of Community Living, workers case loads are in the hundreds by design and for the economic benefit of government to keep costs down.
Systemic failure.

My colleagues working in with Children with Special Needs in care and living with their families and parents have been raising alarms for some time now about the lack of social inclusion and participation facing individuals with disabilities once they age out of education programs. Their lives and opportunities to engage in meaningful learning and social connection become diminished with few programs available once they reach adulthood.
Systemic failure.

As the Representative writes:

All children with special needs must be given full opportunities to live fulfilling and rich lives. They must also be afforded their right to have equal access to the same programs, supports, opportunities and hopeful futures as others.

So often with cases that go wrong, MCFD shifted into COA mode (Cover Our Ass). As this case and so many others over the years have demonstrated, MCFD becomes more concerned with limiting its organizational liability than learning from mistakes and creating policy and practice that will prevent tragedies like this from ever happening again. One of the ways MCFD does this is by failing to conduct internal investigations and reviews of cases where children known to MCFD are critically injured, or died. Elements of this internal focus of protection can also be seen in the MCFD response to formal complaint the brother filed, which concluded all that could be done, had been done. Something any lay person can see is not true at all.

Under the leadership (and I use that term lightly) of the previous Deputy Minister, not only did MCFD not review this case, they did not report it to the Representatives office, which resulted in a very public and unacceptable wrangling with the Representatives office so that they could do the job for which they have statutory duty - to monitor and report out on the safety and well-being of children.
Systemic contempt and failure.

This case also demonstrates the terrible and irresponsible practice of MCFD of opening and closing files, rather than keeping files open for long-term support and monitoring. The mother lacked follow through and compliance with recommended services and this deserved continuing attention and escalation of the child protection response from least intrusive supportive measures.

One thing I also learned working in child protection is that sometimes rather than come right out and tell the authorities they cannot cope with their parenting obligations, sometimes parents would rather send passive messages of inability to cope and that is usually through a lack of follow through, thus forcing an attentive MCFD worker to increase the response. The signs were there, people made reports to MCFD and there were numerous grounds by which this child should have been removed from her mothers custody and placed into care. This did not happen to the profound harm of this girl, who deserved so much more.

When protection is needed

13 (1) A child needs protection in the following circumstances:

(a) if the child has been, or is likely to be, physically harmed by the child's parent;

(d) if the child has been, or is likely to be, physically harmed because of neglect by the child's parent;

(e) if the child is emotionally harmed by the parent's conduct;

(f) if the child is deprived of necessary health care;

(g) if the child's development is likely to be seriously impaired by a treatable condition and the child's parent refuses to provide or consent to treatment;

(h) if the child's parent is unable or unwilling to care for the child and has not made adequate provision for the child's care;

Key Recommendations
  • Focus on the needs and best interests of the child are paramount, not the parent, or system. This is even more crucial for children who experienced complex health, behavioural and emotional challenges.
  • Appropriate use of the Family Development Response and ensure follow through on the part of parents who are referred to support services as a least disruptive response to child protection reports.
  • Collaborative, multi-disciplinary involvement and information is crucial to assess real risks to children and their safety and well-being. Collaterals with any and all parties involved with a child and family are imperative actions that must be taken in assessing risk of future harm.
  • Decrease unreasonably high and overwhelming Community Living and MCFD Intake caseloads.
  • Where parental substance use issues are a concern, MCFD legislation permits investigating workers to access information from many sources about the acquisition and use of legal and prescription medications. All efforts to clarify how much of an impact parental substance abuse may impact child safety and care must be carried out.
  • Parents complex health and their own management of chronic disease conditions is an important part of assessing capacity to care for the complex health care needs of their children.
  • Calls that are received by MCFD that present ongoing concerns related to child safety must be registered as new intakes and full investigations completed. Written notes and lack of follow up with newly expressed concerns are an inadequate response to situations involving chronically marginal families.
  • MCFD, Ministry of Education & Health develop a detailed strategy for provision of services to children and youth with special needs by Dec. 30, 2011, and fully implemented across the province by June 29, 2012.
  • MCFD review plans of all children and youth transferred from CLBC to ministry services, to ensure vulnerable children and youth have appropriate plans that address both their safety as well as their needs. The review, along with a report to the Representative, should be completed by Dec. 30, 2011.
  • MCFD develop and implement policy and guidelines with respect to checking with collateral sources of information when conducting child protection investigations.
  • MSD work collaboratively with MCFD to develop a proactive policy and process so that income assistance to families with dependent children or youth with special needs will not be terminated without a joint review by MCFD and MSD. Policy and process should be developed by Dec. 30, 2011, and fully implemented across the province by June 29, 2012.
My own recommendation is that at all times, the human rights of children, must be seen to be the guiding force and paramount consideration of all systems of care in accordance with the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child.

The Representative writes:

We all share a responsibility to be vigilant and aware of the circumstances of the most vulnerable children who live among us. Each and every one of us has a legal duty to report any concerns about a child’s safety and well-being to MCFD.

The ministry, in turn, has the responsibility to respond, assess these reports, investigate as appropriate and take necessary action to ensure that children are safe.

Duty to report need for protection

14 (1) A person who has reason to believe that a child needs protection under section 13 must promptly report the matter to a director or a person designated by a director.


Report: Case of special needs girl left with mother’s corpse highlights deeply flawed system of supports in BC

By Lindsay Kines, Times Colonist, June 27, 2011.

BC disabled services rapped after girl left with corpse
CBC News, June 27, 2011.