Manitoba·CBC Investigates

'Agencies are really struggling': High caseloads, lack of staff and long waits for treatment

West Region Child and Family Services is struggling to keep up with demand for services for children in care citing lack of staff, high caseloads and long waits for counselling and treatment, according to its 2018 annual service plan obtained through access to information.

Province expects agencies to find savings 'on the backs of our children': CFS agency director

Manitoba Families Minister Heather Stefanson said the government remains committed to reforming child welfare to improve outcomes for families, children and youth. (CBC)

West Region Child and Family Services is struggling to keep up with demand for services for children in care citing lack of staff, high caseloads and long waits for counselling and treatment, according to a document obtained by CBC News. 

One of the agency's guiding principles is preventing children from being apprehended by helping families stay together. 

But in Pine Creek First Nation, there have been limited prevention programs to keep kids out of care "due to staffing shortage," according to its 2018 annual service plan obtained through access to information. 

The branch of WRCFS based in Winnipeg and Brandon identified a lack of preventative support services for families, the document says. This includes programs that help families overcome difficulties.

The service plan also noted CFS workers are overloaded with high paperwork demands, which deprives children and families the attention they require.

The agency cares for more than six per cent of the province's 10,258 children in care. It has 13 offices and serves nine First Nations — including Waywayseecappo, Pine Creek and Ebb and Flow. 

Switch to 'single envelope' funding

"Given the size of the single envelope funding amount provided to our agency, it is concerning that the province still expects us to work and provide appropriate services to families and children from what is perceived as 'savings'," said the agency's executive director Stella Bone. "We ask ourselves again, 'Why on the backs of our children? And why not on theirs?'" 

Earlier this year, Manitoba announced it was switching to "single envelope" — or block funding — of Child and Family Services authorities instead of making per-child payments.

"The single envelope funding is just a fancy word for the same old, same old where operational funding is concerned," said Bone. "Funding has been frozen at 2017/18 funding levels by directive from the province."

In 2019, WRCFS received close to $18 million from the province, according the families department annual report. 

Under the new system, the four authorities that oversee Manitoba's Child and Family Services agencies will get a total of $435 million — which includes the federal children's special allowance — in 2019-20, Families Minister Heather Stefanson said in February.

The four CFS authorities will decide how to allocate the money to the 24 child welfare agencies.

No time to adjust

"I think the agencies are really struggling," said Cora Morgan, First Nations family advocate for the Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs. 

"The province of Manitoba imposed block funding. To me, they didn't provide ample notice so that agencies can make adjustments to their budgets, to their numbers, to be able to make everything work."

The service plan says West Region workers have high caseload ratios and there is a high burnout rate. Senior management noted an increase in Workers Compensation Board claims and also that they are dealing with workers suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder symptoms. 

Stefanson says the 2018 West Region CFS annual service plan document is outdated and that block funding, or single envelope funding, which started in April, gives agencies more latitude to prevent children from being put into care.   

"Central to our reform plans is a transition to single envelope funding, which we believe will enable agencies the flexibility to use funding to support prevention and early intervention programming," said Stefanson in an emailed statement. 

Morgan says the new funding model is based on apprehending children, not preventing kids from being taken out of their homes. 

"I think it's kind of skewed because if that was everyone's focus, we wouldn't have 9,000 First Nations children in care," said Morgan. 

Cora Morgan, First Nations Family Advocate at the Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs, says preventing children from being apprehended by CFS should be the priority. (Jaison Empson/CBC News)

"What I'm hearing from our families, block funding has taken a lot of what little ability agencies had to offer those supports to children, have completely wiped it away for many."

Wait lists for counselling and addictions treatment for children in care are cited in the document by most of the communities serviced in the west region.

'Continuum of care' needed

This lack of treatment for children with addictions is an issue Manitoba's advocate for children and youth has brought forward repeatedly in her reports. 

"We need a continuum of care for children who are struggling with mental health and addiction issues. And we don't have that. Currently, we continue to wait for a strategy for youth with respect to addictions and mental health issues," said Manitoba's Advocate Daphne Penrose. 

"I am really anxiously waiting for some changes to addiction services. We do have kids in dire need of addiction services," said Penrose. 

Minister Stefanson said she is working with other government departments to co-ordinate investments in mental health and addictions services for families. She cited the example of the recently announced Community Healing and Recovering Together (CHART) program to help parents struggling with mental health and addictions issues.

NDP Families Critic Amanda Lathlin is concerned about how funding affects children in the care of WRCFS. 

"This organization has a mandate of obligations to our children in care. And if they're being underfunded, that mandate will not be met. This will diminish any chance a child in care has to have a future if these cuts keep on continuing." said Lathlin.

"Our agency has been in existence for 37 years and throughout that time have accomplished a lot and have achieved a lot of success stories. However in light of all the scrutiny on child welfare, it is a tough job for those workers and care providers," said Bone. 

When asked why the document is so candid in laying out the problems the agency faces, Bone replied that "those that side with children and have a mission to [protect] … children will understand why truth is so important."