Sagkeeng CFS agency in crisis, say social workers

Former and current case workers at Sagkeeng Child and Family Services are raising serious concerns about the agency, with some fearing that a child in care may die under their watch.

When a newly trained social worker got a job at Sagkeeng Child and Family Services, she was determined to help aboriginal kids in care and give them the life she didn't have.

She lasted just two months.

"The whole system is just ridiculous. It's set up to fail," the now-former case worker told CBC News.

"The whole reason I got into social work was to help out families and do what I can. It's very discouraging and frustrating when you have a situation like that where you have to do … what you know is not right."

The former case worker did not want to be named for fear of reprisal.

But she says her experience is a red flag that Sagkeeng, one of Manitoba's first government-mandated First Nations CFS agencies, is in a state of crisis.

And several case workers told CBC News that it's just a matter of time before a child dies under their watch.

"Oh my God, yes. I just got shivers, yes," says one social worker who currently works there.

"I can see that happening. And it's going to happen sooner than later."

Five workers left in past 2 months

In the past two months alone, five case workers at Sagkeeng CFS have quit, been dismissed or gone on stress leave.

As a result, the agency has posted at least that many job openings, and more are expected to be posted because more employees have put in their notices.

As for those workers who are still there, their caseloads have grown.

"Oh, it was ridiculous," says the case worker who quit so soon after she started. "It was crazy."

She said she had so many cases — all deemed to involve high-risk children — that "in the two months I was there, I saw … maybe half of them."

One example she cited was a pair of sisters who had spent most of their lives in and out of care and showed every sign that they were in trouble.

"They were getting involved with police, sexually exploited, fights. They weren't in school or any program," the social worker recalled.

The sisters had no one to come home to, she said — their dad was in jail and their mom was nowhere to be found. The girls were so aggressive, no one was willing to foster them, she added.

"Was I worried for these girls' safety? Oh, all the time," she said.

'These girls were just lost'

But the social worker said she was powerless to help the girls because she just didn't have the time to see them or their siblings.

What's worse, she added, none of her predecessors had time, either.

"In that one year, they had three or four different workers," she said.

"It was like seven family members going among different workers. There's no stability there, no follow-through with any of the workers. These girls were just lost."

Several years ago, the agency was reviewed because two kids in their care, Gage Guimond and Fonessa Bruyere, had died.

Gage was just two years old. Fonessa was 17 and had just been returned to her family home.

The review cited excessive workloads that made proper supervision almost impossible, as well as instances of nepotism, in which supervisors intervened on behalf of family and friends who were clients and gave them second chances at parenthood that case workers did not agree with. The review also found cases of political interference from the community.

The review recommended, among other things, that case workers have no more than 17 cases per month, dependent on the risk levels and needs of clients.

Bigger caseloads than recommended

Today, many of the case workers at Sagkeeng have more than double that caseload, with some having to deal with more than 45 cases.

In all cases, the workers are supposed to visit the families at least once a month, in between the two or three days a week they are committed to intake, paperwork, and court appearances.

Which means, the case workers say, some kids don't get a visit for weeks at a time. Other kids are deemed low-risk — despite strong concerns expressed by the case workers — and still others simply fall through the cracks.

Children in care "need some stability, need somebody that backs them up," says one former case worker.

The worker added that the children need "somebody that's going to advocate for them and actually do it, not be gone the next time you try and get a hold of them."

Officials with the Sagkeeng Child and Family Services have not responded to requests for comment to date.