Manitoba's family services minister has ordered an investigation into Sagkeeng Child and Family Services, after current and former case workers told CBC News that the agency is in crisis.
In a CBC Radio One report that aired Monday, past and present case workers with the First Nation child and family services (CFS) agency said they faced very high workloads.
One current case worker even said it's just a matter of time before another child dies under the agency's watch.
Family Services Minister Jennifer Howard has since written to the Southern First Nations Network of Care, which oversees the Sagkeeng child welfare agency, asking it to report back to her as soon as possible.
"Our first concern, of course, is dealing with the immediate allegations that there are children who may not be safe," Howard told CBC News.
"That's the first priority — to ensure the safety of those children. And we need to make sure that the agency is stable enough to be doing the work that it needs to be doing."
The workers, who did not want to be identified out of fear of reprisal, said in the past two months alone, five case workers have quit, been dismissed or left on stress leave.
The case workers who remain, they said, have seen their workloads grow — with many cases involving high-risk children and youth — but they do not have time to see everyone.
Not the agency's first review
It's not the first time Sagkeeng CFS faces an investigation: in 2008, the province completed a review of the agency in light of the death of Gage Guimond, a two-year-old boy who was in the care of his great-aunt.
The review found that Sagkeeng should never have placed Gage with the great-aunt, who had serious shortcomings as a caregiver.
The agency failed to do proper screenings and risk assessments before sending the boy there, according to the review.
The review was also conducted following the death of Fonessa Bruyere, 17, who had just been returned to her family home by Sagkeeng CFS.
The review report came with 88 recommendations for fixing Sagkeeng CFS, including a call for more conflict-of-interest rules to prevent nepotism and favouritism from diminishing its quality of work.
It recommended, among other things, that case workers have no more than 17 cases per month, dependent on the risk levels and needs of clients.
But the case workers who spoke to CBC News said conditions have not improved at Sagkeeng CFS since the review was completed.
Many of the workers have more than double the caseload that was recommended by the review, with some having to deal with more than 45 cases at a time, they said.
"Absolutely, we have a long way to go," Howard said.
"So when I hear the allegations that have come forward about Sagkeeng, my immediate reaction is, 'Let's get the authority working on it,' which they already were when we contacted them.
"Let's make sure that those kids are safe. Let's make sure that we have a plan in place over the long term to strengthen that agency," she added.
Read the letter from Family Services Minister Jennifer Howard to the Southern First Nations Network of Care, which oversees the Sagkeeng Child and Family Services agency: