'It's not OK for me to be so unsafe': Youth care provider speaks out following death of industry colleague

Current and former youth support and case workers speak out against lack of training and safety protocols in their industry.

Youth care professionals say more training and risk assessment required

Deborah Onwu, 47, was the victim of a fatal stabbing Friday morning, police confirmed. Now, colleagues in her industry are speaking out about their concerns. (Facebook)

The killing of a local youth case worker Debbie Onwu last week was the final straw. 

After years of working in a similar role, Emily Kennedy has given her notice. 

"Hearing how distressed my family was, checking where I was, was I at work? What was I doing?" she said.

Kennedy, who is finishing up her tenure with Aspen Family Community Network, says the job has become too dangerous.

"It's not OK for me to be putting other people in that emotional distress just for a work situation," she said. "It's not OK for me to be so unsafe and to regularly work alone with kids who are having problems."

'She was threatening to cut me'

Kennedy says that over the past decade, working at multiple agencies, she's experienced some traumatic situations — and for the most part, she's been alone when things have gone wrong.

"We recently had a young girl going through a lot, but she kind of got into a self-harm mood and had a razor blade," she said. "My partner had left work already and I was alone and she was threatening to cut me with a blade."

Kennedy said it took at least two hours between the time she called for help and when it showed up. 

"I had to wait. I can't even go look for the razor blade because we can't touch any of their items when we're alone or look at their stuff," she said. "And she told the other staff member when they got there that she had planned to cut me with it."

Staffing issues

Part of the problem, according to Kennedy, is that they're only allowed to work 80 hours during a pay period — so agencies will often shuffle employee shifts and make do with less people instead of paying overtime. 

Kennedy says this was the case the night of the razor blade incident.

"My co-worker had already had a stay late for some emergency and so they were requiring us to leave early other days to manage that time," she said. "She was scheduled to be on shift with me, but left because of that. So I was really frustrated, really upset."

Kennedy isn't alone in speaking out about the dangers and issues faced by youth support and care professionals. 

Limited training

Another former youth worker told the Calgary Eyeopener on Tuesday that issues of violence and abuse are rampant in the industry. 

"We've all been in similar situations where we've been threatened with weapons or threats have been made against our families. We've to be off work because of injuries, concussions and communicable that have been intentionally used against us as weapons," he said.

"Anything from boiling water to makeshift weapons. Anything volatile they can get their hands on we've had to deal with and sometimes the level of training and risk-management factors aren't where they need to be."

When it comes to training and risk management, Kennedy agrees. 

She says in her experience, she's been offered only limited training in therapeutic crisis intervention and de-escalation techniques.

"You're not required to have that before going into work and at both my jobs I was there for at least a month before they offered it to me," she said.

"It's not enough for the concerns that these kids have. If you had an average child it would be great interventions but kids who are coming from a lot of trauma, a lot of substance use, all that stuff. It's not it's not enough and you can always de-escalate someone trying to break down the door off your office."

A call for change

She says it's incumbent on industry and the government to step up and make changes that will benefit both youth in care, and those who provide support and care.

"I think it's the government, I think it's Child and Family Services — they're our primary funder," she said.

"When they cut again and again, we get left with less trained staff, less safe situations and we're left alone more often because they can't afford more of us...It just keeps getting worse."

In a statement, Minister of Community and Social Services Rajan Sawhney says she was heartbroken to hear of the tragedy at Wood's Homes.

"Our condolences go out to Ms. Onwu's family and friends. I greatly value the contributions of Alberta's caseworkers and the important work that they do," she said. 

And, while these workers are not government employees, Sawhney says organizations are required to have appropriate security protocols in place. 

"Harassment and violence have no place in our workplaces and are not 'just part of the job,' which is why it's addressed in our occupational health and safety laws," she said. "I have also asked my officials about appropriate protocols and procedures."

Wood's Homes chair Heather Heaseman says they offer their sympathies to Onwu's family and all those who deliver the "much needed work within Wood's Homes."

She said she could not make any further comments about safety concerns due to the ongoing Occupational Health and Safety investigation.


Lucie Edwardson


Lucie Edwardson is a reporter with CBC Calgary. Follow her on Twitter @LucieEdwardson or reach her by email at

With files from the Calgary Eyeopener and Elizabeth Withey