Manitoba

Caseloads 'absolute insanity,' says Winnipeg CFS worker who hasn't seen some clients in months

Over seven years after the Phoenix Sinclair inquiry made recommendations to prevent the death of another child in care, key changes remain unfulfilled, including reduced caseloads for workers.

Social workers' college wants mandatory licensing for child welfare staff, as Phoenix Sinclair inquiry advised

A Winnipeg child welfare worker says she can't properly meet the demands of all of her clients because of her high caseload. (Novikov Alex/Shutterstock)

Though she is the lifeline for about 30 kids in Manitoba's child welfare system, a Winnipeg CFS worker says she doesn't even have a work cellphone clients can reach her on.

Two new children in care have recently been added to her caseload, but she hasn't had time to meet them yet. Some of her other clients haven't had an in-person visit in months.

"It's absolute insanity, is what it is," said the Child and Family Services worker, who CBC News is not identifying to protect her from repercussions for speaking out.

"You can never get done all the work that you need to get done. They continue to [put] more and more paperwork demands on us and they never lighten the load. It just gets heavier and heavier and heavier."

The worker's caseload, which hovers around 30 at any given time, is far larger than the ratio per worker recommended in 2013, following the Phoenix Sinclair inquiry.

WATCH | Kids in care still falling through the cracks:

Child welfare worker says kids in care still falling through the cracks

CBC News Manitoba

17 days ago
1:33
A Winnipeg child welfare worker says she can't properly meet the demands of all of her clients because of her high caseload. 1:33

Commissioner Ted Hughes recommended ongoing services to families be delivered by workers who are responsible for no more than 20 cases.

The inquiry, which led to 62 recommendations, examined how Manitoba's child welfare system failed Phoenix Sinclair, a five-year-old girl, before she was murdered by her mother and stepfather in 2005.

The worker said she cannot meet the needs of all the young people she is legally responsible for.

She has kids sitting in emergency placements for months because of a shortage of foster parents, she said. In some cases, clients have a relative they can lean on for support but for others, she is their only lifeline.

'They've had the worst lives'

"They've had the worst lives. I have lots of kids who have dead parents, they don't have any healthy family members. They don't have anyone else really to speak for them, to do the normal stuff."

The worker is not licensed with the Manitoba College of Social Workers — something Hughes said should be required.

Barb Temmerman is the executive director of Manitoba College of Social Workers. (CBC)

In his final report, he recommended anyone who practises social work in Manitoba, under any title, be registered by the regulatory college.

"We've never really understood the department's reasons for not requiring licensing of social workers," said Barb Temmerman, the college's executive director and registrar.

She said over 400 staff with the Department of Families were poised to be registered with the college in 2015.

But instead of registering the workers with the college, the provincial department changed position titles, removing the words "social worker" from their titles, meaning they didn't have to be registered.

She said every year the college receives complaints about social work practitioners who are not registered, so the college can't investigate them.

"We have to tell youth that we don't have jurisdiction, we can't help them. They don't have a voice in our complaints process because that person is not registered or licensed."

Richard De La Ronde said when caseloads are high, workers can't meet all of the legislative requirements for children in care. (Jeff Stapleton/CBC)

The executive director of Sandy Bay Child And Family Services said he tries to hire registered workers, but it isn't always easy. Some CFS workers on-reserve wouldn't have the university degree that would be required for licensing, said Richard De La Ronde.

His agency's caseloads per worker generally hover from 15 to 20, but lately have been as high as 24, due in part to an increase in family violence during the pandemic, he said. When caseloads get that high, the agency will hire another social worker to alleviate the pressure.

"You're just waiting for something to happen. Kids are going to fall through the cracks, so it's impossible to do quality social work with caseloads of that level."

De La Ronde expressed disappointment that key recommendations from the Phoenix Sinclair inquiry have yet to be implemented.

The problems in the system are "consistent and … persistent, and nothing really gets done about it," he said.

"And I find that agencies are left to their own devices to deal with workload and caseload, and some of us do it successfully and some others are restrained by their budgets."  

The Winnipeg worker, who gives out her personal phone number to clients and is given $20 a month for using her own device, said one positive change she has seen in the last few years is an increase in preventative work due to "single envelope," or block funding of Child and Family Services authorities, instead of making per-child payments. That has allowed for flexibility in how agencies allocate money, she said.

"I feel like there has been a pretty big shift to put more resources in homes, like in the family service department, to keep kids from coming into care, which is huge," she said.

"That's why, I think, some services numbers are down so much … from where they used to be."

Jay Rodgers, CEO of the General Child and Family Services Authority, said Winnipeg CFS has kept caseloads to 20 within its family service units.

In a statement, he said staff who provide services to children who are in the permanent care of the agency may have different caseloads than those in the family service unit.

Rodgers said Winnipeg CFS has cellphones for employees' use and all children under the agency's care are given a phone number to call after hours and on weekends.

"This number is answered 24 hours a day and will provide them with a worker who can assist them," he said.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

​Austin Grabish joined CBC in 2016 after freelancing for several outlets. ​​In 2018, he was part of a team of CBC journalists who won the Ron Laidlaw Award for the corporation's extensive digital coverage on asylum seekers crossing into Canada. In 2019, he was on the ground in northern Manitoba covering the manhunt for B.C. fugitives Bryer Schmegelsky and Kam McLeod, which attracted international attention. Have a story idea? Email: austin.grabish@cbc.ca

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