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Social workers overloaded

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SUICIDE victim Tracia Owen is the face of an aboriginal child and family services system which is overworked, understaffed and underfinanced.

Michael Bear, executive director of South-East Child and Family Services, the agency which had responsibility for the 14-year-old Owen when she hung herself in a Winnipeg garage while AWOL from a group home, said he could only praise his social workers for doing everything they could with too many children on their caseloads.

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Bear said that, with his agency currently responsible for about 950 children, his social workers each look after 35 children.

"Twenty to 25 would be the right number," he told provincial court Judge John Guy on Wednesday during an inquest into Owen's death.

"With that high of caseload things can get by workers. The child could fall through the cracks. You only have 24 days in a month.

"The issues my staff deal with are extreme."

Bear said additional money being injected into the child welfare system by the province will translate to only one more social worker being hired by his agency.

"It's putting a finger in the dike to hold back a tidal wave of water," he said.

When asked if he expected other children in his agency's care to die this year, Bear said "I hope not."

"My staff are dedicated to the work they're doing. They are doing everything humanly possible to ensure something like this doesn't happen."

Owen committed suicide on Aug. 24, 2005, using a rope tied to the overhead door of a garage used by prostitutes behind a Victor Street house. An autopsy found she died from the hanging, and she had used cocaine and Ibuprofen.

The teenager had been placed in the care of Project Neechiwan by South-East Child and Family Services.

The inquest has heard that the agency moved her 64 times, including returning her to her parents 17 times before her death.

The chief medical examiner called an inquest to look into her death to examine how social factors led to her death, including drugs and sexual exploitation.

Bear said Owen's past drug and sexual problems, along with the broken connections with her family at the Little Grand Rapids reserve, isn't out of the ordinary with the children they care for.

Later, Bear praised Family Services Minister Gord MacIntosh for trying to persuade the federal Indian Affairs minister to put the aboriginal social welfare system at reserves on par with the province's.

Bear said that, currently on reserves, "there's no money for interventions or to assist the family with diapers or food... there's no prevention dollars.

"We have families that come and say 'take my child, I can't afford to feed them.'"

The inquest continues.

 

kevin.rollason@freepress.mb.ca

 

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition February 8, 2007

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