Putting Children First: Social Workers and Child Welfare in Canada

At the outset, it is critical to acknowledge that we recognize the profession of social work’s very specific role and responsibility in supporting the implementation of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s Calls to Action.

Child welfare: it’s the area of practice the public most associates with our profession. Indeed, it’s where many social workers get their start, or where many of us have spent the majority of our careers – myself included on both counts. And yet, we actually know so little about it in a broad sense.

We hear so many negative stories about the issues surrounding child welfare in our country. Not just the reports of burnout, PTSD, huge caseloads impacting our ability to practice, and the deprofessionalization of child protection roles, but also about critical system issues that have led to crises such as the overrepresentation of Indigenous children in care.

At the same time, social workers continue to get slammed in the media whenever an incident occurs, often because the public has so little understanding of the profession -- of child welfare workers’ roles -- and perhaps most importantly, that by overwhelming majority, social workers are doing the very best for families within a cash-strapped, overburdened system in a society plagued by the impact of colonialism, sexism, poverty, and other systemic issues. And that, very often, social workers work nimbly within systems that do not align with their values to generate ethical, creative, strengths based solutions with clients. 

While each worker, each organization, and each province, territory, or First Nation understands their own realities, successes, and challenges, there is no Canada-wide picture of child welfare. No national best practices. No national standards for caseload size. No evidence being gathered about promising and emerging practices country-wide.

With the paper we released today, we’re looking at supporting solutions in providing a better future for Canada’s children and improving the working environment of social workers dedicated to helping families build a better life.

So why are we in this situation? How can it be that the federal government hasn’t taken a leadership role, when we know there is an ongoing crisis in the system, especially relating to Indigenous children and families?

The short answer is that such federal reporting and accountability mechanisms just do not exist.  

It often shocks people to learn that the Canada Social Transfer (over $14 billion in 2018-19), transferred by the federal government to provincial/territorial governments each year, is simply added to general revenue – dollars intended for social services could be used for potholes. We simply don’t know.

That’s why, since 2014, we’ve been pushing the federal government to adopt a Social Care Act, similar to the Canada Health Act which guides the Health Transfer, that would use principles to help guide social investments. That’s just one piece of advocacy we do here at CASW that’s related to this research – I’ll tell you about some others in just a moment.

The paper we’re releasing today, titled Understanding Social Work and Child Welfare: Canadian Survey and Interviews with Child Welfare Experts, paints a picture of child welfare systems in each province and territory, including information relating to different jurisdictions’ efforts towards reconciliation.

I am proud to report that the research is incredibly powerful – both in confirming some of our assumptions about the profession, as well as revealing a few surprises. For instance, there’s an impression that it’s hard to retain employees in child welfare positions, or that social workers only work in child welfare at the beginning of their careers – but our research found over 60% of social workers in child welfare positions have over 10 years of experience in the field. Putting more resources into child welfare can give experienced workers more of what they need to help families remain together while keeping children safe. 

For the first time, we have a bird’s eye view of the profession in child welfare across Canada, and this research has revealed important areas for advocacy, both for our own profession, and for Canadian society at large.

In terms of advocacy for our profession, this research confirms that social workers need to be included as First Responders in federal legislation designed to help address workplace PTSD and vicarious trauma.

We now have the concrete research that something needs to be done about overwhelming caseloads and increasing austerity-driven managerialism that robs social workers of time better spent forming relationships in their communities and helping families.

That is why we’ll be demanding that the federal government begin a nation-wide Child Welfare Caseload Study. We’re telling the federal government that when social workers are prevented from remaining in their positions or developing relationships with communities, children and families suffer resulting in more children in care and more families in crisis.

The data produced by this project is both troubling and uplifting, but most of all provides an important stepping stone to future research and advocacy.

I was touched, but not surprised, to discover through this project that 88% of social workers reported that their colleagues are their greatest sources of support: we are each other’s champions. And while social workers reported monumental challenges, they also often reported high levels of job satisfaction.

Here at CASW, it’s our job to help celebrate the amazing work we do while acknowledging the next steps toward a better future for all Canadian children and families. It’s our job to maintain this momentum forward, armed with this new research, and with a Board of Directors and supported by federation partners and members committed to the principles of reconciliation during this critical time in child welfare -- and in Canadian society at large.


Jan Christianson-Wood, MSW, RSW
CASW President