Nova Scotia

Nova Scotia government looks to lighten load of overworked child protection staff

The Department of Community Services is promising to follow through on dozens of recommendations put forward to try to improve the working conditions of social workers who handle child protection cases.

Measures stem from grievances filed by social workers in 2017

Tracey Taweel is the deputy minister of the Department of Community Services. (Jean Laroche/CBC)

The Department of Community Services is promising to follow through on dozens of recommendations put forward to try to improve the working conditions of social workers who handle child protection cases.

Those social workers have complained for years about the stress of carrying large caseloads and working extra long hours.

Report recommendations

The recommendations outlined in a report presented late last year to senior government officials and shared this week with CBC News stems from union grievances filed by 21 social workers in 2017.

In a memo to staff, Deputy Minister Tracey Taweel spelled out what her department plans to do to try to make working conditions better, including:

  • expanding the pool of social workers who are able to take children into care.
  • relieving social workers of some of the paperwork they are now required to do.
  • increasing the on-call pay rate.
  • consider adding social workers diagnosed with post traumatic stress disorder for presumptive workers compensation benefits. 
  • relieving social workers of some of their responsibilities to ferry children in care to and from appointments/visits. 
  • looking at offering incentives to those studying social work to lure graduates into the department. 
  • limiting the number of times a social worker can move from one job to another within the year.

The recommendations come from four labour-management working groups formed in 2019. They considered five themes — PTSD presumptive coverage, workload, after hours, safety culture and retention of new social workers.

The co-chairs of those working groups presented their recommendations to government last November.

"Since the original grievance was filed ... we have been actively working to improve working conditions and sit in agreement of these recommendations," Taweel wrote in the December memo.

"I look forward to working collaboratively on these initiatives."

Move applauded

Jackie Barkley, a longtime social worker and advocate for change within the department, applauded the move to reduce the administrative burden on caseworkers.

"It will help," said Barkley, who sometimes works under contract to the province. "It's a good thing, a lot of years too late."

"What social workers were articulating [in 2017] was that they could not do social work because they were like case administrators. They had to deal with all the infrastructure of the child protection case which is ... quite complicated."

Burnout

She said burnout continued to be a serious problem among social workers assigned to child protection work, leading many to transfer to less stressful jobs or to leave government altogether.

According to figures provided by the department, the number of front-line social workers and supervisors has increased by 26 full-time positions, from 391 in 2014-15 to 417 this year. During those seven years, the number of referrals has increased from 12,239 to 15,419.

According to the department, social workers are responsible for roughly 24 cases on average. The department would like to see that drop to 20 cases per social worker, ideally made up of cases that range from low to high risk.

Taweel acknowledged the challenges facing social workers in her department at a meeting of the Nova Scotia Legislature's public accounts committee last Wednesday.

"I am absolutely aware that social workers in child welfare often find themselves in the midst of incredibly challenging and emotional situations," said Taweel in her opening statement. "They have some of the most difficult jobs in any sector in government, and give their heart and soul each and every day, often under very trying circumstances."

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