New Brunswick

Death of six-month-old boy prompts warning that social workers have too many cases

The province’s child death review committee is warning that social workers are juggling too many cases, after reviewing the death of a six-month-old boy known to the Department of Social Development.

Child death review committee says caseload must be smaller to meet needs of children they protect

After reviewing an infant's death, the child death review committee is warning that social workers are juggling too many cases. (CBC)

The province's child death review committee is warning that social workers are juggling too many cases, after reviewing the death of a six-month-old boy known to the Department of Social Development.

It's a concern that governments in this province have heard over and over again, after multiple high-profile cases of child neglect.

"That means that social workers can't get to all of these families that they are supervising because of their caseloads," child and youth advocate Norm Bossé said.

"It increases the risk factor, let me put it that way. We're not blaming anyone for this occurrence. It's not the social worker's fault. But at the same time, the committee is pointing that out to the department as a factor in this case."

According to the child death review committee, the six-month-old boy "died of complications from acute/subacute encephalitis," which is inflammation of the brain. Other significant factors included "an unsafe sleep condition, prematurity, and the child being small for his age."

The public report, which was released on Thursday, doesn't say when the boy died or where in the province he lived.

Nor does it lay out exactly what role social workers' high caseload might have played in the boy's case.

'A crisis level'

The president of the union representing child protection workers says child protection has been under-resourced "for quite some time," and the department has struggled to recruit and retain experienced social workers.

"It's really gotten to a crisis level once again, which is very unfortunate," said Stephen Drost, president of CUPE Local 1418, which represents child protection staff.

Stephen Drost, president of CUPE Local 1418, representing child protection workers, says staff are struggling with a backlog of family court cases because of the pandemic. (Stephen Drost)

"One for families and children and our communities. But also for young social workers coming out of university and starting a career where there's some pretty significant challenges."

On top of the regular staffing issues, courthouse closures in the spring have caused a large backlog in family court, Drost said, something staff call "the COVID docket."

"When you're dealing with child protection, it's a very serious matter involving children and their families, and there's also legal requirements and standards and timelines that are very sensitive in these matters," Drost said.

Not a new concern

Less than two years ago, consultant George Savoury warned that children are at risk because of an under-resourced child protection system that wasn't made a priority within the Department of Social Development.

Savoury's review followed a case of neglect involving five siblings who lived in squalor while under the supervision of child protection services.

Bossé also reviewed that case, and his report, called "Behind Closed Doors: A Story of Neglect," detailed more than two dozen complaints involving the five siblings.

New Brunswick's child and youth advocate's office found the child welfare system failed to protect five siblings who lived in squalor, although more than two dozen complaints had been made about their safety. (Joe McDonald/CBC)

The government vowed to make changes after those two reports, including creating standalone child welfare legislation.

According to Drost, there have been some changes since then, such as decentralizing the intake system of receiving complaints and reducing the administrative tasks that social workers need to do. He said there's also a joint committee tasked with coming up with solutions.

More transparency

The child death review committee probes the deaths of children under the age of 19, including those who were in the legal care of the minister of social development or whose families were in contact with the department in the 12 months before the child's death.

For years, the committee offered few details in its public reports. A 2017 CBC Investigation called The Lost Children found the public knew little about how vulnerable children are dying and if anything could have been done to save them.

A few months later, the previous government vowed to tell the public more, including the child's age, the cause and circumstances of their death and how they were known to the Department of Social Development.

The review into the six-month-old boy's death includes nine recommendations and far more detail than in past reports.

"This signals to me a new way that the child death review committee will undertake its reports and I think that's a good thing for the public," Bossé said.

The words "unsafe sleep" are what stood out most to Bossé when he read the report. The term has come up in numerous child death reviews over the years, prompting a public education program to teach parents about the dangers of things like co-sleeping and other unsafe sleep situations.

Child and youth advocate Norm Bossé is pleased to see the child death review committee offering more details in its public reports. (Ed Hunter/CBC)

"It's a good reminder of what can happen if a child is not in a safe sleeping condition," Bossé  said.

Other recommendations

The committee also called for more help for families who don't have the means to take their children to medical appointments and for child protection staff to prioritize reports made by medical professionals.

"When a serious concern is brought to the attention of Child Protection Services by a representative of another professional agency, a new intake assessment should be completed," the report says.

Multiple reviews of the child welfare system over the years have highlighted problems with communication between different agencies that care for at-risk children.

"This is information that needs to be shared and it is not subject to privacy laws," Bossé said.

No one from the Department of Social Development was made available for an interview.

The government agencies who received recommendations have 45 days to respond to the child death review committee report.

"The Department of Social Development will respond in the coming weeks to the recommendations of the Child Death Review Committee," government spokesperson Abigail McCarthy wrote in an email.

"The department's responses will be made public."

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About the Author

Karissa Donkin is a journalist in CBC's Atlantic investigative unit. Do you have a story you want us to investigate? Send your tips to NBInvestigates@CBC.ca.

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