Children's advocate worried about vacant social work positions in Sask.'s north

Saskatchewan's Advocate for Children and Youth says he is concerned to hear about 30 vacancies in social services for the province's north. Corey O'Soup says front-line workers have told him they are 'overwhelmed' with the current situation.

Professionals in Saskatchewan's north are feeling 'overwhelmed': Corey O'Soup

Corey O'Soup is Saskatchewan's Advocate for Children and Youth. (CBC )

Saskatchewan's Advocate for Children and Youth says he is concerned to hear about 30 vacancies in social services for the province's north.

In a statement released Friday, Corey O'Soup responded to reports earlier in the week about unfilled social services positions.

"It is troubling for us at any time when this many front-line positions are unfilled," O'Soup said in the news release. "It is especially concerning in light of the recent suicides of six young girls in the north. We have heard first-hand accounts from professionals in the region who are feeling overwhelmed with the situation".

The union that represents government workers in Saskatchewan, the SGEU, said the Ministry of Social Services had identified more than 30 vacant positions in its northern service area, as of November.

Social Services Minister Tina Beaudry-Mellor was asked about the situation on Thursday. While she did not have any additional details about the vacancies, she said it was an important matter.

"I'm very concerned about that," she told reporters at the legislature, adding she would ensure officials looked into it. "Our ministry deals with the most-vulnerable people and so having supports in place is something that is very important to me as a minister and it's certainly important to people in my ministry."

The issue of vacant government jobs was raised after the province announced a hiring freeze as part of an effort to confront a growing budget deficit. It said the freeze doesn't apply to front-line positions, such as social workers.

Long-term solution needed, advocate says

In his statement, O'Soup praised the government for responding quickly to the urgent need for social service supports in the north. He added a long-term solution is required.

"We applaud the government for moving quickly to bring in social workers from the south to help alleviate the stress of the vacancies. But this is a quick fix, and not a sustainable plan," he said.

O'Soup also pointed out that the province made commitment, in 2009, to ensure that all children receive an equal standard of care, protection and services.

Many social workers provide service to children who are in the ministry's care and O'Soup said those children should not be short-changed.

"Children under the care of the ministry are some of the province's most vulnerable and inadequate staffing levels pose a great risk to them," he said. "The safety and wellbeing of children is compromised when there are few staff to perform the crucial services provided."

O'Soup said he is "well aware of the financial situation" facing the province but was pleased when he heard that essential services would be exempt from the hiring freeze.