A message for Child Welfare Social Workers from President Sandra Mullen

The following op-ed was sent to print media in Nova Scotia to advocate on behalf of our members who work as social workers in the child welfare system. The recent AG report missed the mark on the current state of child welfare and I wanted to set the record straight that social workers are not the problem. The working conditions, lack of resources and supports and a broken system are the real problem and make the work that you do harder. You work to protect and serve vulnerable children and families and you do so under very stressful working conditions. The union has been advocating on your behalf with the Department of Community Services for years. Our recent meetings with the executive team at Community Services was productive and there is reason for optimism. However, the AG completely misrepresented the issues and who is accountable for them. The problem is outdated government policies, lack of funding, and no recruitment and retention staffing plan.

The work is invaluable and you do it very well under tough working conditions. The union will continue to advocate for better wages, working conditions, resources and staffing.

Tomorrow morning the AG will appear before the legislative public accounts committee to answer questions about her report. The union was not asked to participate in this committee meeting despite our best efforts to appear. Social workers are the backbone of the child welfare system and deserve better than what was reported by the AG.

Tomorrow’s public accounts committee meeting can be seen on the government YouTube channel at 9:00 a.m.

Recent AG Report Misses Mark on Root Cause of Child Welfare Challenges

Last week, Nova Scotia’s Auditor General released her report “Health, Safety, and Well-Being of Children Placed in Temporary Emergency Arrangements and Child and Youth Care Homes.” The findings came as no surprise to those dedicated social workers working on the front line. They are overworked, under-resourced and doing their best in a system that is outdated and puts greater emphasis on administrative paperwork than ensuring vulnerable families and children get the care and protection they need.

What did come as a surprise is the way these hardworking social workers were thrown under the proverbial bus. Unfortunately, the Office of the AG simply missed the mark in their evaluation and investigation. Social workers are doing their absolute best to keep their head above water, but the system continues to add weight to their shoulders making it even harder to do their jobs. The AGs report did little to support these dedicated individuals.

It was an opportunity missed. The province needs more social workers, but the findings from the report only highlight why so many are leaving the profession or looking for work elsewhere.

Caseload standards are nearly thirty years old. International best practices indicate a maximum caseload of ten cases per social worker. In Nova Scotia, there are instances where a single social worker must manage up to 80 cases. In these instances, the social worker is putting their effort and attention where it is needed most – caring for the families and children involved.

The newly appointed Minister of Community Services, Brendan Maguire, brings a unique and much needed fresh perspective to the child welfare file. The minister himself, as a youth spent time in the child welfare system, so he understands the importance of social workers. He rightly pointed out in a statement following the AGs report that social workers are not the problem here and that they are putting efforts where they should be – caring for vulnerable children.

It’s early days in the minister’s mandate, however, if his actions match his words there is reason to be optimistic that real change is on the way.

The NSGEU has been ringing the alarm on this issues in child welfare for years. The union, on behalf of its members, has had some positive and constructive conversations with the senior leadership at Community Services. There is agreement that social workers have a tremendously difficult job. They deal with families and children on their worst days and burn out is a real consequence of this job. However, many social workers are caring dedicated people who show up each and every day knowing the work they do matters to those families and children.

The attention of the AG and government need to be laser focused not on the social workers but on the system they work in.

It’s broken.

They are overworked, under-resourced, the policies are outdated and not relevant to today’s environment, and there is a significant gap in recruitment and retention planning. Social workers have other employment options with better pay in a less stressful work environment and a more reasonable work-life balance. Many were already feeling disregarded and ignored and the AGs report did little to help.

There are solutions that will improve working conditions, ensure families and children continue to get the care they need, and modernize the system to better meet today’s challenges.

The NSGEU is calling on the Minister of Community Services to take bold action to address the gaps in the system that he knows needs fixing. The union and the Nova Scotia College of Social Workers are ready to be partners in this transformation. But make no mistake, this is more than a policy review. This is a systemic change that must include addressing some key problems that families are facing such as poverty, inadequate housing, access to healthy food, affordable childcare, and the redevelopment of a social safety net to better support families before they fall into crisis.

Minister Maguire, you find yourself in a unique position. You have been handed the keys to a operation you know is not working as well as it should. Who will be prioritized this time, the wishes of a Premier or the families, and children and social workers who need your help today?

Minister, the ball is squarely in your court.

Sandra Mullen
Nova Scotia Government and General Employees Union

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