September 5, 2018
The Honourable Jean-Yves Duclos
Minister of Families, Children and Social Development
House of Commons
Dear Minister Duclos,
On behalf of the Canadian Association of Social Workers, I am writing to inform you of the results of our recent major research on social workers and child protection in this country, and to ask for your help in improving child welfare systems across Canada.
To begin, CASW is very supportive of your government’s return to cooperative federalism, especially as it pertains to the delivery of equitable health and social services across Canada. The National Housing Strategy and recent National Poverty Reduction Strategy are key pieces of a fairer, better Canada and we have applauded your government’s steps toward change each step of the way. A next, critical step, however, is addressing the crises in our child welfare systems – your government has referred to the over representation of Indigenous children in care as a ‘humanitarian crisis.’
Our research paper, titled Understanding Social Work and Child Welfare: Canadian Survey and Interviews with Child Welfare Experts, was published in late August 2018 and paints a bleak picture of child welfare systems in each province and territory.
The research took two main forms: a nation-wide, bilingual survey completed by more than 3200 social workers, as well as interviews with child-welfare leaders and experts from different jurisdictions.
Some of the most salient statistics revealed include: 75% of social workers report that unmanageable workloads are a critical issue in their practice; 44% have experienced threats or violence on the job; 45% of social workers who left the field did so due to stress and/or vicarious trauma and; 72% say administrative responsibilities prevent them from spending adequate time with clients. Additionally, a shocking 65% of caseloads include Indigenous children and families.
These statistics paint a picture of social workers who practice under conditions that prevent them from remaining in their positions and developing relationships with communities, children and families, resulting in more children in care and more families in crisis.
To summarize our findings across Canada, the project found:
- excessive workload and caseloads are a key factor in social workers leaving child welfare positions;
- organizations have inadequate mental health and wellness resources to respond to staff who experience vicarious trauma or develop post-traumatic stress disorder and;
- there is a troubling lack of adequate data and information to guide policy and planning.
The intended role of social workers in child welfare practice is to develop relationships with communities and support families in remaining together. In the current climate, with huge caseloads requiring overwhelming administrative burdens, this person to person, relationship-building aspect of social work is often pushed to the wayside. Families needing supportive interventions are often seen only after an incident requires that a child’s safety take precedence over strengthening families to keep children safe at home.
We also know that child welfare practice has the most success in keeping families together when the community has a healthy, long-term relationship with a worker. Currently, high caseloads are causing social workers to seek positions where they can use their skills to make a difference. This results in many social workers leaving the field of child welfare, creating a ‘turn-style- effect in many communities that ruptures family relationships with professionals and discourages them from seeking assistance before a crisis develops. The irony is that families who do seek preventive services are necessarily seen after workers deal with situations where children are not safe at home. The situation is particularly difficult in rural and remote areas where social workers are integral to the community and experience difficulty finding the time and space to take care of themselves.
Currently, there are no national standards governing caseloads in child welfare practice. Tools for how to measure appropriate caseload size and complexity vary from region to region. Practices, and successes, vary as well. There has been no large scale study in Canada to help child welfare organizations, both on and off reserve, determine a healthy and appropriate caseload for their workers.
With that said, we urge your office to help support the development of such an initiative, potentially with funds allocated through Employment and Social Development Canada. A national study is a critical step in improving the well-being of children in this country.
Again, on behalf of the CASW federation, I extend our thanks for your government’s steps toward a better Canada, and hope for your collaboration on this initiative. CASW’s Executive Director, Fred Phelps, would be delighted to speak with your office further. He can be reached at [email protected] / 613 – 729 – 6668 x 222.
Jan Christianson-Wood, MSW, RSW