Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Osborne House gets bad reviews

Counselling inadequate, staff at odds: reports

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Incomplete records, insufficient counselling and a toxic workplace where staff are "divided into camps" describe the province's largest women's shelter, according to two independent reports submitted in the past month.

More concerning is an allegation of child abuse, documented by a counsellor at Osborne House after speaking to a client, was not reported to authorities --a violation of the law.

It's these two reports that formed the basis of an emergency meeting Friday called by Family Services Minister Jennifer Howard between five Osborne House board members and provincial officials. The goal of the meeting was to come up with a plan within seven days to address these and other issues that have plagued the shelter for at least the past 18 months.

"We need to get past the blaming and we need a plan to turn things around there," Howard said Monday. "These are all things that can be fixed."

Osborne House said in a statement Monday it will comply with Howard and obtain any guidance or help offered by the province to that end.

"How satisfied they'll be with our action plan is another thing," Osborne House CEO Barbara Judt said Monday. "They find fault with everything we do."

'They find fault with everything we do'

-- Osborne House CEO Barbara Judt

Howard didn't comment on whether the province, which funds Osborne House at about $1.6 million annually, would call in a provisional administrator to take over the shelter's operations.

"I don't contemplate what-ifs," she said.

Howard said the two reports, released by the province to the media, raise concerns about ongoing internal problems at the shelter that could potentially compromise its work helping women who flee abusive relationships.

The reports describe a workplace where client files are incomplete, the quality of counselling services is unacceptable and the work environment hostile.

"Such a working environment can impact negatively on clients as staff work at 'surviving' and 'protecting' themselves," said an Aug. 29 workplace-assessment status report prepared by Camille Hill of Hill Advisory Services.

The report said 38 per cent of staff reported clients were not being serviced properly because of the hostile working environment and almost 40 per cent of staff said they had unresolved concerns or conflicts with co-workers.

SSLqWe need to get past the blaming'

-- Family Services Minister Jennifer Howard

"When you have a work environment in which people do not communicate, it's very hard to have a quality service," Howard said.

Judt said the Hill report and a second one by Roberta Graham and Dr. Linda Ross that reviewed client files, do not give an accurate picture of the shelter, as neither was prepared with the full input of staff or compared Osborne House to other shelters.

Judt said if the work environment is so toxic, there would be a higher turnover rate.

"There's really not that much turnover at all," she said of the 36 full-time, part-time and casual staff.

Howard said her focus is ensuring the shelter delivers appropriate services, such as protection planning when a woman leaves the shelter, so women "fleeing dangerous men" know their safety is paramount.

The Graham and Ross review found most clients received only 50 to 60 per cent of the required counselling sessions. "Assisting women to be safe is the priority," the report said.

Judt said Osborne House is being singled out in much the same way as Assiniboia Downs, where the province intends to cut $5 million from the Downs' video-lottery-terminal revenue. That issue is before the courts.

The province said it informed Osborne House of the two reviews Aug. 1, with a deadline of Sept. 3 for both.

The rift between Osborne House and the government surfaced publicly Aug. 22 when the shelter exposed deputy premier Eric Robinson's comment on "do-good white people" in criticizing the shelter for a burlesque-show fundraiser.

Robinson initially refused to apologize to Judt for his comment, but later issued a public apology.

Judt rejected the apology, calling it "false and insincere."

bruce.owen@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition September 24, 2013 A6

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