Union Matters: Child Welfare On The Brink

This week, we sit down with NSGEU President Jason MacLean and Alec Stratford, Executive Director of the Nova Scotia College of Social Work, to discuss an important new campaign aimed to support child welfare services in Nova Scotia.
As a result of recent changes to the Nova Scotia Children and Family Services Act, child protection workers’ scope of practice has been increased, but no additional resources have been allocated to support an already overburdened system. We discuss what needs to happen, and what Nova Scotians can do to help!


Hello and welcome to this week’s episode of Union Matters, NSGEU’s weekly podcast. I’m your host this week, Holly [Fraughton] and I’m joined here today by Alec Stratford, Executive Director of the Nova Scotia College of Social Workers, and out own President, Jason MacLean. Welcome.


HF Thank you for agreeing to chat with me today. I know we’re going to be talking about this joint campaign; Child Welfare on the Brink, which launched in January. It’s interesting because social workers have a duty to advocate for their clients, and we — the college and the union — both have a duty to advocate for social workers because they are our members. So Alec, I was hoping you could tell me briefly what exactly child welfare social workers do.


AS Child welfare workers are probably some of the most hardworking and skilled workers we have in this province. What they do is they work with families and children and youth who are experiencing some kind of neglect, or abuse, or challenges in the home that are putting the child’s safety at risk. What our members are able to do is to go in and empathically connect with those families, with those children to determine and to work in solidarity and to find a way to make that home safe and create better well-being for everyone. It is a very complex job because it involves so many different elements. The case management involved at one point in time on one case could be looking at housing issues, food security issues, mental health and addictions issues, issues with child care, issues with food security. All of these complexity of issues really make up one case file. At this point in time we’re receiving case files that are exceeding 20, and in some cases I’ve heard up to 80. It is a tough job, but it is a job that is also incredibly rewarding. We know that our members that are social workers got into this field because they care, they care about kids, they care about youth, they want to make a difference in the world. Child protection is an amazing place to be able to do that. To be able to connect with families, often at their worst or when they are in crisis, and be able to leave some of that stress and be able to work to create greater well-being overall.


HF Sounds like a tough job too, because it’s a very emotional job at times it sounds like, but also a lot of paperwork?


AS Yeah, that is part of the challenges we see is that our social workers are trained professionals, they are regulated, and that’s our job, at the college to ensure that there is a high standard of care and a high standard within the profession. On a daily basis they are sitting around tables in folks homes, they are in folks cars, they’re in the emergency rooms, they are across the province in various settings, often times meeting people at their worst moments. Being able to alleviate that stress, find some meaning in all of that is part of their role. It is incredibly challenging to be able to do that. And this is the thing, is that it is a profession and a skill that is undervalued. We continually marginalize professional care in this province, and I would say across Canada. We don’t value it as much as other professions, and this is something that overall needs to change.


HF I think this is actually the first time the College and the NSGEU have worked together on something like this. Why now?


JM Just as Alec was telling you, what we have is our members telling us that there’s families, children, youth, that are at risk out there in the province, and Alec was talking about the profession being undervalued, well yes it is undervalued. I believe our members undervalue themselves because they’re putting themselves [in front of] these families and they’re out there doing it. Our job is to advocate for these members, and that’s what we’re out here doing. They’re putting it down every day and just laying it all out there so a child doesn’t get hurt, so a family can be fed, so quality of life improves for other people, all the while their quality of life is deteriorating. We need to step up and I’m really glad we have this relationship with the College of Social Workers, because it’s been something that is real and will help Nova Scotians in the long run if we are effective in getting government to respond.


AL That’s right. I would say that the college’s primary objective is protection of the public. We act as a professional association as well to support our members in achieving the standards of our profession. The union is there to represent the members. These are not mutually exclusive issues. What is in the interest of the public is also in the interest of the workers. That’s true in many services, particularly in this one. When members are stretched beyond belief because they’re doing administrative work and they are exceeding their hours of work to be there with families and when they are only able to do it when [families] are in crisis, this has a huge impact on the public on how we’re able to deliver services. The conditions for the workers impact how that service is delivered for the public and that’s something where we absolutely need to see change.


JM I have to say, this is a trend throughout NSGEU. What we’ve been doing is trying to link up with those other groups that effect our members and our members work. We need a full picture on what’s going on, so we can tell you that things are bad for workers, but also the college can tell you that things are bad for the clients they represent as well. It give you a fuller picture of what’s going on out there in the province.


HF It’s the type of work as you were alluding to earlier, Jason, that the social workers take home with them. It’s not something they can leave behind, it’s not a 9-5 gig, so it has a far-reaching effect on their lives as well.


JM I always talk about our members being exploited. People go into social work because they care. They want to fix things. They want to help people. When they’re seeing that people can’t be helped during a normal work day, they’re working all hours, they’re working without overtime, sometimes with overtime, but they’re putting it all out there to put the case in a better spot. And that’s another thing, when we have people that have larger case loads — and that is the majority, that is the norm, and the employer would agree with that that people are covering case loads that are beyond what they should be covering — not all cases are created equal. There’s more parts to one case than there is to another, and this person that’s the social worker is the one reaching out and putting things together for the families, so to say somebody has 80 cases or 20 cases, the cases are so complex you just can’t say, Oh, this person only has this many, because it just entails so much more.


HF It’s more nuanced. Alec, on that point, are there case load levels they’re supposed to adhere to?


AS The province does have a policy on case load standards. It’s 20 years old now, and it was a fight to even get that in place 20 years ago. What it says is that social workers are to have a mix of high, medium, and low risk files, no more than 20. We do know now, in particular, that national and international standards show that the number is closer to 15 or 17. But as Jason was alluding to, there’s two different issues here. It’s not just case loads, it’s work loads. A case load number can be seen very arbitrarily if you have 10 very high risk, high needs families on that case load, so it is far more nuanced than just that number. We do know that number is often exceeded. It is 20 years old. Ultimately it isn’t in line with national and international standards.


HF Are we trying to get that looked at again with the province?


AS It’s something both the union and ourselves have talked about: How are you looking at the issue that is case loads. What is the standard you are moving towards? What kind of analysis have you done at this point in time, which is the bigger question, because it’s hard to say what’s going to be the right number when we haven’t even done an analysis of vacancies, of where we are with staffing levels and of what that work’s like in terms of overtime workloads and burnout. Burnout’s not just and anecdote we’re talking about. We have numbers that show the significant amount of burnout that’s happening among social workers. That has huge repercussions across the delivery of the service. When we talk to our members and other stakeholders and we hear stories about clients having, in a period of six months, five different workers, which isn’t good practice for how we want to build relationships and support clients. But that’s the reality because of the burnout. We haven’t created the conditions that are supportive of workers to come in and be able to do this really challenging work.


HF I understand there have been changes to the Nova Scotia Children and Family Services Act recently. Can you tell me a bit about those changes and any impact those changes have made on the jobs of social workers?


AS We saw 80 amendments come through with the Children and Family Services Act, and it was time that it needed to be updated and reviewing a legislation is a good, positive process. What we heard before the act came into place was concerns from both stakeholders and members about the readiness of the system to bring on those new changes, with no real tangible plan as to what would happen. The amendments themselves did increase the overall workload given that they added the categories of 16 to 19-year-olds into the realm of child protection. They expanded the definition of neglect, which means that referrals are coming in more often. They re-established mandatory reporting for professionals, so there’s another avenue in which more calls are coming in. They decreased the amount of time that was needed for a file before it had to go to court. All of these things speak to more administrative burden and more work put on social workers without any more resources put into place to manage that.


JM That is the point right there. Nobody is arguing that these changes weren’t needed and these additions are welcome, but there’s no new people to administer this, so we’ve got a system that was already overburdened, and there’s no new people to actually help out with the increased workload we have there. That’s exactly what we’re putting out there.


HF So they’ve increased the scope, but they’ve not increased the funding.


AS That’s right, and they did an initial assessment, an impact assessment, and determined, somehow, that they would be able to do all of this work, transition to more intervention services, without more resources. Anyone who know the system well knows that you just can’t get rid of long-term case files like that. It’s not something you’re just able to say, okay family, you’re good to go, I’m going to go over here and do more preventative work. Particularly when we know there is a lack of community resources or other supports to have that family to be able to do well after that intervention is in place. And that’s part of the broader issue that we’re speaking to as well.


HF It’s good to hear that the Minister has a magic wand. It would be nice if she used it.


JM It’s interesting, the former Deputy Associate Minister, I asked her, is there anything we have on the website, which is childwelfareonthebrink.org, is any of that not factual. And she said, no, it is factual. So there’s an admission by government that something needs to be done. I met with high-ranking officials with government in the past few weeks, and I’ve told them — nothing less than adding more people to the system and putting more funds into the system will fix this problem. That is it. We’re trying not to be ambiguous in what we’re looking for. We’re trying to say we need more people, more social workers in the system right now and you need to put more funding in there to properly promote what it is you’re looking to do. There’s a need out there around this province and we’ve got some offices that are screaming for help. We can’t stop talking about it, this is a crisis we have right now and we need to approach it that way.


AS It is about resources. Whenever we go, and I’m sure Jason has experienced this too, whenever we go speak to ministers and the government and top ranking bureaucrats, they’re always about, give us something more than just resources, what else can we be doing? No, this is about an erosion of civil services over the past 30 years that is now having substantial consequences on our population and the health of our population. One of the things that continues to strike me is our measurement of success in a society is how my GDP we are able to produce. That’s a poor measurement over all. To be honest, we’ve set that as a measurement and we’ve done really well at achieving that. Our GDP continues to grow. The rich keep getting richer. There’s continued wealth going down, but it had a consequence on the well-being of our society, because in order to do that we’ve made taxes low, we’ve cut expenditure to civil services and social services.


JM And the most vulnerable have become more vulnerable.


AS So this isn’t just about child protection. They’re feeling this, absolutely, the most at this point in time. But this is a trend that we’ve seen for 20 or 30 years now that needs to be stopped and changed and thought about differently. We cannot do this work, we cannot continue to let the most vulnerable continue to be marginalized and think that we’re doing a good job as a society.


HF This government, every time they introduce a “balanced” budget, or they have a surplus, it’s like they’re looking for a sticker from people. This is not something that should be applauded or rewarded when you have services for the most vulnerable population go lacking.


JM How can you be proud of a balanced budget when the province is going down and it’s going down fast? People are not happy right now. And it’s not that they’re not happy with government, just quality of life is getting worse in Nova Scotia and it’s getting worse by having austerity measures out there coming from government. It’s very interesting time because we are looking at surpluses, and this government is opening the house on February 28 and I will be there along with our Political Action Committee. They’re opening and shortly thereafter they’ll be delivering a budget in mid- to late March. It’ll be interesting to see where the funds get put. We know funds need to be put into Child Welfare and funds need to be put into Healthcare as well. Not to mention other things. But I’ve been hearing anno9uncements from this government over the last year and a half that they’re investing in this, they’re investing in that, and everything is 2021. I can’t believe that we’re standing for a better Nova Scotia two years out from now when they can do it today. They need to make some investments right now.


As What strikes me every year is the Premier gives a state of the province address. That’s usually done in front of a wealthy group of elite business owners and bankers and he’s able to say the province is doing well because we have a balanced budget, we’re investing , businesses are investing here, we’re seeing our economy grow. I highly doubt that the Premier would get the same response if he were giving that same address to the group of folks who are continually marginalized and oppressed and not looked after by our province. If you were to take a group of child welfare clients, of folks who are not receiving health care properly, of seniors, and he was to deliver that address, I think the response would be very, very different.


JM When he gave that in Cape Breton he got booed.


AS Right! This is at the root of the challenge here. Whose interests are being represented by this government? It does not seem like it is the interests of all Nova Scotians. It seems like it’s the interests of a few wealthy elite.


HF And they’re not interested in talking about the hard issues, are they? We saw at Public Accounts this week, they said we don’t want to talk about those things. So they’ve taken it totally off the radar. We’re not even having those discussions in a public way anymore because they’re controlling the dialogue.


JM They’re controlling the dialogue by increasing privacy, where people can’t access what is being talked about, and not only that, they’re stopping what can be talked about. This is something that people need to pay attention to. We didn’t come here to come across as anti McNeil government, but McNeil government has some issues and it needs to be addressed by the public.


AS I think that is absolutely at the root of this issue is that, as a society, we have to start to reflect on what is it that we want for ourselves. We’ve continually pictured economic growth, GDP expansion as out measurement. I don’t believe that’s actually what we think or believe. We have to come forward as a social movement for the well-being of communities, of people. Make those measurements what we mark our success on. That’ll change the tone of government and also drive us to be more empathetic to one another, instead of looking at the almighty growth of our GDP, because it is a poor measurement of success.


HF How well we care for one another as a society has gotten lost along the way.


JM That sounds like a good world.


HF Coming back to the campaign, what are we hoping to accomplish? What are we asking for?


JM We’re looking for more people, more full-time jobs in child welfare. We have the services, we have the programming, we have the Act that’s been updated, but we don’t have the people to deliver the services, and that’s what we need there. We need the funding put forward by government to have more people in the system. In certain circles I had the conversation: [and they said] what you’re doing with this campaign will be detrimental to recruiting people, and I said, no, what will be detrimental is how you respond to it and if you were to put money into the system, then you will have these people who are currently studying to become social workers to want to work for the province of Nova Scotia, because, guess what, if the province believes in it’s people and it’s going to deliver the services that are needed, then I can go into the field well equipped.


AS I’m in the School of Social Work all the time talking to students and they want to do this work. They’re excited to come out and have a full-time job that’s protected by a union, that has benefits, that’s exciting for them. However, those young social workers need to land in a supportive environment that’s going to mentor, nurture them into this complex role. That’s what’s going to speak to their retention. Us saying that there’s a problem isn’t going to deal with retention of recruitment at all. Acknowledging there’s a problem and putting in the resources and putting forward the supports to bring new grads in is part of the solution that we need to see put into place.


HF I noticed that the wording we’re using in the campaign talks about the under-funding of social programs in general. Why is it important for all of our social programs to be adequately funded, not just the child welfare portion?


AS As we mentioned about the complexity of issues, it will be unfair to assume that one social worker could manage all of the complexities of a family. We recently saw new policy come in place — again, good policy — around social workers checking in on immigration status of clients. It’s an important and vital policy that’s in place. However, here’s another complex task with an administrative burden to it and one social work cannot accomplish it by themselves. When we’re taking about the complexity of case management that’s in place, we’re talking about things like income support. We know that poverty has a substantial impact on the stress that families are feeling and how folks are able to move forward in some of these complex issues. We know that housing continues to be an issue. We saw the federal government make a pledge for $40 billion dollars or something like that for new housing and I saw a statistic the other day that since they put that money in we’ve seen about 14,000 new units across Canada, which is nothing. So where’s that spending? Where’s that money to bring in new, affordable housing? We know the statics around wait times in mental health and addictions. We know the problem of the under-funding in that system. What happens for these very vulnerable clients is the same thing that happens to every other Nova Scotian. They say I’m having health problems, I’m not feeling well. And they’re put on a wait list. In Cape Breton I think the wait time is still close to a year. We continue to see a lack of supports around overall wellness for social workers to be able to utilize. Yes, having more workers is essential, but having more tools to be able to do the work is also equally as essential. It’s like sending a carpenter to try and build a house without having a mitre saw. How do you expect them to do that? It will take them 3 times as long is they’re just using a hand saw.


HF A lot of it is about putting the proper supports in place so we don’t get to a place where child welfare workers are needed.


AS And that was the intent of this new Act, and let me tell you, you don’t need an act to put preventative services in place. The Act is there to say This is the most substantial impact we can have, and this is there to create some legal barriers and legal grounds as to what and when we might need to take more intervention, but the prevention comes in that social spending, ensuring folks have adequate income. Ensuring folks have dignifies employment, aren’t making a minimum wage that is far below the living wage in this province. Ensuring that workers and the public that they serve have the tools and resources to be well.


JM When talking about what else needs to be expanded, look at our case aides that are doing the work with our social workers. Their jobs have been significantly changed as well. What we want, and what we’ve been bringing to the government’s attention is, You are making these changes and you’re actually hurting families in the process. We have a government that appears to be listening, but how closely are they listening and how will they respond? We are going to be getting a response quite soon.


AS I think they’re listening, but they’re standing by their own ideology and policy at this point in time. If your goal is a balanced budget, if your goal is keeping taxes on the rich low, then that really shorts your ability to put the spending where it needs to go and the social services where it needs to go.


JM I just a believer in Something’s Got to Give. It’s been austerity measures straight through. I don’t think Nova Scotians will stand for more austerity in a new budget. People are relatively quiet right now, even though every crisis that’s been pointed out by this union and by your organization is getting worse. I’ve listened to government officials, it seems like things are moving in a direction where things are going to change. I’m not any supporter of this government, but we’re giving pressure for this government to do things and it has to give here. If it doesn’t, there’ll be all hell to pay for it. We have to take this on.


AS Let’s talk about that plan that we’ve heard about. We continually hear that the Department of Community Services is in transformation. The transformation is a 7 year process. We’re in year 4, give us 3 years and we’ll land where we want to go. The questions is, where do we want to go? What does that look like? What is the end result? To me, I don’t have a clear picture of what that’s going to look like, despite asking for that. In the media we’ve hear the Department of Community Services respond to this crisis with, Well, we’ve moved positions around and we’ve given social workers more lap tops and more cell phones so that they can work more often in more places, which is actually at the root of the problem we’re talking about! That is happening too often at this point. That’s the root of burn out. These aren’t real plans. They’re plans derived from the managerial end on how do we create efficiencies in our system, rather than particularly at the root of this filer in child protection, which is about how do we build better human connection. How do we ensure that our members have the space and the time to be able to sit down with the family, not just do a risk assessment, but an assessment of all the strengths of the community of that family, so they can put forward meaningful plans? Time is key.


HF Just on that, I find this really laughable. I was reading an article this morning with the Premier talking about how the Nova Scotia Teachers Union needs to deal with their pension shortfall right now and it’s not appropriate that we kick the can down the road any further, but he seems perfectly content to kick the can down the road further when it comes to child protection and issues of our most vulnerable population.


JM He’s quick to point the finger at others and won’t accept the blame himself. He’s been in government too long to say this is somebody else’s problem, so what he’s saying is it’s not a problem at all. He won’t admit that there’s a crisis in health care, although everybody is talking about how bad health care is. Every time I get to talk to our membership, I’m talking out of a political lens, and I tell them because politics rule our lives, our jobs are funded by what government decides to spend here or there. You get laid off or lose your job because government decided not to fund something. But it’s more than somebody in the public service getting laid off, it’s a family that’s going to suffer. We serve Nova Scotians. So the expertise, and the jobs that are there that are funded by governments, people can say, Yeah we need to cut back on our spending. Well you’re cutting back to your own detriment because you’re looking for services that our members deliver, so the buck has to stop somewhere and it has to stop with McNeil.


AS It raises a good point of how balanced of a budget is this if we are deferring our responsibility on social spending now, and we know the consequence of that down the line is that it usually comes back more expensive, more complex way when we don’t deal with it up front. Child protection is a service that speaks to that very directly in terms of when we under-fund child protection, when we’re not able to do the work with families op front, often times those families will end up with pretty chronic and several mental health and addictions issues. Often, unfortunately, will end up in the justice system, and when we look at what’s happening with the teachers and classrooms right now, when we talk about the behavioural issues of folks coming to school without food in their bellies, that speaks to this issue directly as well. How balanced of a budget it is if we’re negating our responsibility on social spending?


HF It all just seems to tie into that old adage: Penny wise, pound foolish. That’s really {McNeil} in a nutshell. That’s this government. It’s all about the bottom line with them, but they don’t see the long-term consequences of their actions.


The campaign has been in the field for a couple of weeks now. Have we gotten any feedback on it so far?


AS On the campaign website we have a forum for folks to leave comments and to join the campaign. We’ve heard from many different people. From different backgrounds and different parts of the province. I can read out a couple of quotes right now:


“I am a foster parent who is appalled of the condition of children when they finally do come into care. Years of neglect has the most devastating effect on the most vulnerable and helpless in society. It is disgraceful commentary on our priorities to not be funding the system properly.”


So here’s a foster parent who has seen the impact of under-spending.


HF And they’ve been in the system for a few years so they have the knowledge of what it used to be like versus what it’s like today.


AS Absolutely. Another example of this:


“As a social service provider that holds space for people involved in the child welfare system, the issue is near and dear to my heart. I would say that it has far surpassed the brink at this point in time.”


So we’ve received hundreds of comments with similar sentiments: it’s heartbreaking to see what is happening to kids. They see the workers, they see how stressed they are, and that something needs to change. There’s been positive pick up and feedback on this campaign, and that’s the important part. If we’re going to see change, we have to see dialogue. We have to see this talked about in that political level so that we can see some change happen.


HF Jason, have we heard back from government yet?


JM We have heard from government. I think at the last meeting we had I said it 4 times, exactly what it is we were looking for, and the Minister looked back at me and said, I get that very clearly. So they know what’s going on. If they don’t act accordingly,… As I said, we’re working on the next steps right now and we’re going to  go forward with our campaign and bring it to the people. I see a lot of activity in government, which leads me to believe that it’s gotta be a good news type of budget. But, their actions are going to speak for themselves. If we go by what they’ve done in the past, they’re doing nothing. We need to be prepared for where they’re going to be. Also, I’m hearing from our members, they’re saying, finally, people are speaking out. We, as advocacy organizations, need to speak out for our members, but people need to speak out and say what’s going on and our members are saying they’re hearing what needs to happen. Pressure is being put where it needs to be — on the politicians. We’re moving forward with it. I want to say to our members out there that are listening to this: we’re on this! We’re trying to do the best job that we can and we’re hope we’ll be successful. Stay tuned!


HF People have probably seen our ads on the sides of buses in Halifax and Cape Breton. Also, we’re online on different social media platforms as well. The campaign website is https://childwelfareonthebrink.org/. We are asking people to go to the website. There’s a letter there they can send to the Premier to ask that funding be increased in the next budget. We really appreciate you joining us today. Thank you very much to both of you and thank you to our listeners. Thank you for tuning in to Union Matters. We hope you’ve enjoyed this episode. Please don’t forget to subscribe. We’re also on Facebook and Twitter @nsgeu. Have a good one!

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