New Brunswick

Party leaders offer few solutions to improve child protection during debate

Findings of the child protection review are important for the public to see during the campaign, according to former child and youth advocate Bernard Richard.

A government-ordered review won't be made public until after the election

This image of children's handprints, mixed with feces on a wall, was presented at the trial for two parents in a high-profile child neglect case in Saint John. The parents are serving two-year sentences for failing to provide the necessities of life to their five children. (Matthew Bingley/CBC)

New Brunswick's political party leaders offered few specific solutions for improving the province's child protection system at a CBC-hosted debate on Wednesday.

The leaders were told that at least 49 children have died under the watch of the Department of Social Development since 2008. Nearly all died from unnatural causes.

High-profile cases of harm and neglect have surfaced over the past two decades under various governments. Most recently, the public heard how five siblings in Saint John were left to live in a filthy home with little to eat while under the supervision of the Department of Social Development.

What, leaders were asked, could be done to improve the province's child protection system? 

Green Party Leader David Coon said he would restructure the department and called for former child and youth advocate Bernard Richard be appointed to lead the effort.

"The red and blue teams have had years —years — to get this right with child protection and they've failed," Coon said.

"They've failed time and time again. It starts with having an open system so people can see what's going on, what the recommendations are, to act on them."

NDP Leader Jennifer McKenzie, left, Green Party Leader David Coon, People's Alliance Leader Kris Austin, Liberal Leader Brian Gallant and Progressive Conservative Leader Blaine Higgs before the start of Wednesday's debate in New Brunswick. (CBC)

The other leaders didn't offer specific solutions.

People's Alliance Leader Kris Austin called for more funding for social development, while NDP Leader Jennifer McKenzie wants to improve the lives of children before they end up in child protection.

"These things can't be fixed when you have social workers that have hundreds of files they have to look after to be able to catch these things in due time," Austin said.

McKenzie talked about her party's promise to raise the minimum wage to $15 an hour and put affordable childcare in every school, but didn't say anything about improving the current child protection system.

Liberal Leader Brian Gallant acknowledged that child protection has been "a problem for decades."

He said his government has been working with the child and youth advocate "and other stakeholders" to "better the process," but he didn't provide further details.

Progressive Conservative Leader Blaine Higgs didn't address the topic at all in his answer, focusing instead on access to mental health care in schools.

Review delayed

Some solutions may be found in a review of the child protection system written by Nova Scotia-based consultant George Savoury. It's complete, but the public won't be able to see it until after the Sept. 24 provincial election.

In an email, Savoury said his report will be considered a draft until he can brief the new government on its findings.

The province says it will share the report once the final version, including translation, is complete. Department spokesperson Anne Mooers didn't offer any timeline on its release in an emailed statement.

Former child and youth advocate Bernard Richard says the public should see the findings of a government-ordered review into child protection before the election. (Chad Hipolito/Canadian Press)

The findings are important for the public to see during the campaign, according to Richard, the former child and youth advocate.

"I don't see why this issue should not be on the table," said Richard, who is now a senior advisor with Mi'kmaq NB Child and Family Services Inc.

An 'exodus' of social workers

The issues include a high workload of complex cases for front-line child protection workers and a lack of experienced staff, according to Stephen Drost, president of CUPE Local 1418.

For example, staff who investigate tips from the province's Most recently, the public heard how five siblings in Saint John were left to live in a filthy home with little to eat, while under the supervision of the Department of Social Development. have received more than 44,000 "intakes" since 2015, according to figures obtained by CBC News through access to information.

More than 23,000 of those tips were referred to a regional office for more investigation, requiring more staff time.

Experienced front-line child protection workers are leaving their jobs because of a high workload of complex cases with too much administrative work, according to the union that represents child protection workers. (CBC)

"Their volume is unbelievable," Drost said.

"It's an extremely stressful job."

It's not a new concern. Questions over social workers' workloads have been floating around since the late 1990s, after Jackie Brewer died of neglect inside a dark Saint John bedroom.

But the Department of Social Development has seen an "exodus" of experienced social workers in the last year or two, Drost said.

'Something wrong with the system'

He believes many have left because they have a high workload that involves spending too much time doing paperwork instead of working with families.

"We've got a lot of young, inexperienced people in very critical positions and we feel that it's compromising our ability to actually protect children and meet our mandate," said Drost, a social worker who has worked in child protection.

He said staff within the department are now looking outside the province to find experienced social workers with the expertise to work in child protection.

"If you can't get good people to come into those positions and keep good qualified people to do those positions, there's obviously something wrong with the system."

Union wants report to trigger change

The union's provincial child welfare committee met with Savoury to express its concerns around workload and are "anxiously awaiting" the findings of his report, Drost said.

Drost isn't picky on whether the public should see the report before or after the election.

He just hopes it leads to change.

"Our greatest hope is that this report doesn't become like a lot of reports that can be sought out by governments and it ends up on a shelf somewhere or that we don't get to see the full report."

Savoury's mandate called for him to look for "factors that positively or negatively influence the effectiveness of the child protection or family enhancement services system."

Nova Scotia-based consultant George Savoury was hired to review the province's child welfare system. (George Savoury)

In a previous interview with CBC News, Savoury said he would look at the department's policies and standards, training and whether staff have too many cases to juggle.

Child and youth advocate Norm Bossé is also conducting a review into the child protection system. The first part will be released in the fall.

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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.