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High worker caseload puts kids at risk: Saskatchewan children's advocate

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REGINA - Saskatchewan's children's advocate says high caseloads for protection workers and poor communication between Health and Social Services staff contributed to two child deaths.

Bob Pringle says he hears on a daily basis that workers sometimes don't get around to things because they don't have time.

"This is coming from the workers that assessments are not done because there wasn't time, that we weren't able to communicate because we just didn't have time to do it or co-ordinate services to families," Pringle said Tuesday after releasing his annual report.

The children's advocate says some workers have more than 40 cases.

This has been a persistent problem in Saskatchewan.

Pringle's report notes that the issue of high caseloads was first identified in a 1998 child death review and again in a 2010 submission to the Saskatchewan Child Welfare Review, which recommended the province establish caseload standards.

He says the province has deferred its response to the recommendation until it completes a review of the Child and Family Services Act.

"I've had three conversations with the deputy minister of Social Services, who I know is interested in the issue, but we can't wait," said Pringle.

"We continue to see gaps in services and actually non-compliance with policy and on almost 100 per cent of occasions staff attribute it to workloads."

Pringle's report details the deaths of two girls, seven and 16 months old, who were born to mothers struggling with addictions, family violence and mental illness.

In the case of the seven month old, identified as Carly, which is not her real name, the worker told the children's advocate that she wanted to spend more time with the girl's mother, but this was difficult because of her high caseload. The report says contact with the family did not meet provincial standards.

An autopsy determined Carly had recent and repeated impacts to her head and multiple rib fractures that were healing.

Social Services Minister June Draude says caseloads are going down, but it can be tough to set a standard because cases can be complex.

"We know that children have different needs and when you take into consideration the geography in our province, it's really difficult to say there should be just this many caseloads per worker," said Draude.

"So we have decreased the number of caseloads. They went down about 23 per cent in the last number of years, so going in the right direction, but we know that there's always more work that we can be doing."

Draude says 80 per cent of child protection workers have between 15 and 20 cases.

The children's advocate report also says that the health system doesn't have effective ways to help young people who are suicidal. The advocate says there aren't enough child psychologists in the province, assessments aren't being done fast enough and neither is follow up care.

Pringle notes that almost a third of 34 critical injuries to children last year were suicide attempts, but that mental-health services are only provided to 10 per cent of kids in foster care.

"The promise is in what's coming, but in terms of right today, in terms of mental health and addiction services for youth, we believe that very little has been done," said Pringle.

"I would say it's priority A plus because when children or young people are taking their own lives, from my point of view that's a preventable death," he added.

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