Child-welfare workers across the province are scrambling to deal with a retroactive four per cent funding cut made days after the provincial government received the Phoenix Sinclair inquiry report.
The cut to salaries and benefits, made quietly over Christmas, amounts to $3.1 million across the province's front-line agencies and applies to the current fiscal year.
With just two months left in the fiscal year, the province's 20-plus agencies are now scrambling to keep jobs vacant longer, shift workers around, phase out contracts or even consider layoffs.
The Metis Child and Family Services Authority, one of the province's smaller agencies, must find $500,000 in the next three months to make good on the four per cent cut.
"It's big. It's huge," said CEO Billie Schibler, the province's former children's advocate. "We've had to sit down with our agencies to determine how we're going to cope."
Schibler said her authority will trim travel costs first and do everything possible to prevent cuts to cultural and prevention programs. Layoffs are not out of the question, she said.
News of the cut has rippled through the province's social workers. There is speculation the province clawed back funding in order to have a stash of money available to act on recommendations from the Phoenix Sinclair inquiry. The province rejected that suggestion, saying the cuts are about belt-tightening only. In mid-December, after almost two years of hearings, commissioner Ted Hughes turned over his report into the 2005 death of Phoenix to the province. That report, which examines how the child-welfare system failed the five-year-old, is slated to be released publicly Friday, and concern over what it will say has temporarily overshadowed worry over the funding cut among social workers.
The cut comes after years of funding increases to child welfare in the years following Phoenix's death and the devolution of child welfare to aboriginal-run agencies. In the last four years alone, front-line agencies have seen a total funding increase of nearly $100 million, in part because the number of children in care has also skyrocketed. This fiscal year, funding for agencies was budgeted at $421 million. The province says the funding cut shouldn't result in layoffs or affect front-line services.
"We expect child-welfare agencies and authorities to invest taxpayer dollars wisely, which means finding efficiencies," the province said in a statement late Wednesday. "This adjustment accounts for vacancies that naturally exist in any workplace, and we expect these savings to be found so our investments in child welfare are going to help children and families."
But child-welfare staff say the cuts hit hard and were unexpected.
"Child-welfare workers are generally very concerned abut the impact this cut is going to have on service," said Manitoba Government and General Employees' Union staff representative Janet Kehler.
Schibler said the Métis authority might be forced to begin the next fiscal year in a deficit. She said most authorities expected to see tighter budgets, but the province made the retroactive cut with little notice or consultation.