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 Without knowing the system, many people expect that there are social workers, active and busy, where now they have been replaced by call centre operators.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.

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