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Overworked and burnt-out: Social worker testifies at inquest into baby's death

The former supervisor for child services testified social workers in the Department of Family Services were experiencing burnout at the time of four-month-old Amelia Keyookta’s death in 2015.

'If all I can do isn’t good enough ... I’m the one who has to live with that,' Jessica Shabtai testifies

Amelia Keyookta was taken into care after she was found by social workers in a home full of marijuana smoke. (Submitted by Sheldon Toner)

The former supervisor for child services testified social workers in Nunavut's Department of Family Services were experiencing burnout at the time of four-month-old Amelia Keyookta's death in 2015.

The ongoing coroner's inquest into the infant's death is required by the Nunavut Coroner's Act because the baby was in government custody when she died.

Keyookta was taken into care after a social worker found her in a home full of marijuana smoke in 2015. She was in protective care for less than a day when she was found unresponsive at a caregiver's home, where she'd been placed temporarily by a department social worker.

Aleisha Wesley, the social worker in charge of Keyookta's case, testified Monday that she felt her caseload was high. After Keyookta's death, she said she didn't receive the support she needed, so she went on sick leave and later resigned.

Workload 'too high'

Wesley's supervisor, Jessica Shabtai, testified Wednesday that she felt the workload for herself and the nine social workers she managed was "too high."

The number of cases was going up at the time and Shabtai said employee turnover had a snowball effect on the office's capacity to handle new cases.

"If a file has to be opened, it has to be open," she said. "When things are tough files stay open longer, which creates even more workload because you don't have time to deal with the things you need to deal with to close the file."

Shabtai said each of the social workers were in charge of between 30 and 35 youth, as well as responsible for managing new investigations which came up regularly.

It left little time to manage paperwork on files, which she said was very important, and no time to do community outreach or other preventive work to protect children.

Felt unsupported by government

Instead, Shabtai said her team was running from crisis to crisis with not enough time to give adequate focus to each situation, which ranged from finding missing high-risk youth to finding places for youth to stay.

She said in 2015 there were around 60 foster families in Iqaluit and often that was not enough.

"I've stayed in the office all night with an infant ... because we called everyone on the foster list three times and there was nobody," said Shabtai.

In terms of trying to combat burnout, Shabtai said she encouraged her staff to leave on time at 5 p.m., if there were no pressing court deadlines, and did self care and team-building training.

However, when engaging with the Family Services' headquarters herself, she said she felt unsupported.

"I was told, 'Just do what you can that's all you can do,'" said Shabtai, adding she rejected that advice as unhelpful.

"If all I can do isn't good enough and kids fall through the cracks and get hurt or worse, I'm the one who has to live with that at the end of the day."

In March 2016, Shabtai went on sick leave due to burnout for six months.

Thursday morning, Jo-Anne Henderson White, the director of Family Services, is expected to testify about some of the changes the department made in the wake of Keyookta's death.

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