'We are in a crisis:' Quebec order of social workers calls for broad inquiry into youth protection services

Youth protection services in Quebec are in need of a serious fix, the head of the province’s professional order of social workers said Friday.

Underfunding, staff burnout, long waits leave families feeling system is ‘waste of their time’

The head of the Quebec Order of Social Workers, Guylaine Ouimette, says social workers have too much work and there are not enough of them to do it. (Radio-Canada)

Youth protection services in Quebec are in need of a serious fix, the head of the province's professional order of social workers said Friday.

Guylaine Ouimette was speaking out following questions that have been raised about the state of youth protection services, after news broke of a seven-year-old girl from Granby who died earlier this week.

On Monday, local police found the girl in critical condition at her father's home in Granby, 80 kilometres east of Montreal. The child was taken to hospital and remained in a coma until her death on Tuesday.

The girl's father, 30, has been charged with forcible confinement, and her stepmother, 35, has been charged with forcible confinement and aggravated assault.

CBC News is not naming them or anyone else related to the girl because of a court-ordered publication ban, to protect the child's identity.

Ouimette cited the reorganization of health and social services under the former Liberal government, as well as a lack of enough social workers, for the difficult situation in Quebec.

"We are in a crisis," Ouimette said. "The situation is not acceptable anymore. Things have to be done quickly, effectively to change this."

"General frontline services, that we can actually designate as frontline social services, practically no longer exist [in Quebec]."

Ouimette called on the government to set up a commission of inquiry with a broad mandate to bring together all the players in health care and education who work with youth protection services, to figure how to fix things rapidly.

She's also calling for the establishment of a mentorship program, for veteran social workers to provide support to less experienced workers in the field.

'They've almost invited this to happen': former worker

In a written statement to CBC, the regional health agency that administers Batshaw Youth and Family Centres, the youth protection agency serving English Montrealers, said it continues to work on reducing wait times to evaluate cases.

It says it is also focused on recruiting more staff to work in a difficult bilingual environment.

McGill University education Prof. Naomi Nichols, who specializes in youth at risk, says there are significant gaps in areas such as mental health, housing, health care and financial support to help families.

McGill University assistant professor in education Naomi Nichols specializes in youth at risk and says there's too much pressure on social workers, and it affects children at the bottom line. (CBC)

Nichols says at Batshaw, there is a delay of almost two months to evaluate a case.

"It is a remarkable indication that we have underfunded those systems such that they can't even begin to keep up," said Nichols.

The latest figures for wait times for youth protection across the province show the delay for evaluating cases has increased in every region.

The figures for Batshaw and in the Eastern Township, which includes Granby, are higher than anywhere else.

In 2016-2017, the delay for Batshaw was 16 days, and for the Eastern Townships, it was 26 days. The wait in the Eastern Townships is also two months now.

The number of cases reported to Batshaw rose by more than 15 per cent over the last two years.

Joanne Vasquez, a former youth protection worker at Batshaw, told CBC News she quit last summer when her workload became overwhelming.

She says that after the Liberal health care reform, social workers' responsibilities increased, leaving little time to conduct home visits and follow-ups with children at risk and their families.

When she quit, Vasquez says, her caseload had gone from a maximum of 18 to 27.

Joanne Vasquez is a former youth protection delegate at Batshaw. (CBC)

"I feel like they've almost invited this to happen because they've increased the caseload [by so much]," Vasquez said in a phone interview Friday.

"You have an over-exhausted workforce — like me, who doesn't want to work in that kind of crazy position, because it's very delicate work, youth protection."

"They're children at risk, at the end of the day, and you have to be there and follow up with them, and work with them to try and end the risk."

'Impenetrable' system, burnt-out workers

Nichols says the backlogs create a vicious circle for workers and the people they are trying to help.

People walk away feeling that the system is "impenetrable" and "a waste of their time," she says. Staff retention is a major problem.

"Workers experience burnout," said Nichols. "It's exhausting to work tirelessly day after day and feel like you're not actually making a dent in the problem."

"Families who are phoning day after day … trying to get access to basic, life-sustaining services for their children are also feeling frustrated."

Stuffed animals and flowers have been left outside the home where the girl lived in Granby. (Charles Contant/CBC)

Nichols believes the health care reforms, coupled with a lack of investment in services, have led to the problems youth protection services face.

"We've had a further fracturing of continuity of care in those systems," she said.

"There's more cliffs where people just fall off the care trajectory, and there's no one there to catch them."