Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Province warned about chaos

Union sent letters in '02, '05 about workload, staff turnover

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The Manitoba government was warned by the union representing social workers about a mounting crisis in the child-welfare system three years before the tragic death of Phoenix Sinclair.

The Manitoba Government and General Employees Union, which represents more than 500 social workers, sent three letters to two government ministers between 2002 and 2005 detailing concerns about the deteriorating atmosphere within Child and Family Services.

The letters, released on the MGEU website this week, warn the province of confusion within the department, increased workloads, staff turnover and deteriorating morale during a period described as nothing short of chaotic.

The first letter, to then-family services minister Drew Caldwell, came a year before Manitoba's child-welfare agencies underwent a "devolution" process that split family services into four new authorities: one each for aboriginal children in northern and southern areas of the province, one for Métis children, and a general authority for all others.

MGEU spokeswoman Janet Kehler said Friday the union released the letters to defend its members in the wake of criticism of those who were involved in the Phoenix Sinclair case.

An inquiry is looking into how the social-welfare system handled the girl's case before she was slain in 2005 at the age of five, by her mother and the woman's boyfriend.

"In the vein of full public disclosure and given that people are drawing conclusions from the information that's being presented at the inquiry, rather than hold on to all of our information until I give testimony at the inquiry later in January, we felt the public ought to have the context in which all of this work was being done," Kehler said.

The first letter dated Dec. 19, 2002 is to Caldwell, the second dated Feb. 21, 2005 is to then-family services minister Christine Melnick.

The third letter, also to Melnick, is dated July 11, 2005.

Kehler said concerns raised at the time were discussed at the ministerial level -- in an effort to reduce the pressures on workers to be more responsive to clients -- but never acted upon.

"The feedback that we got back from our members more than a decade ago related to workload, training, standards and their ability to do the work in a way that they feel is safe on behalf of Manitoba children, those things have not been meaningfully impacted," Kehler said.

She said while funding has increased to levels never seen before, staff has been added and training methods improved, the system is still falling short due to the high number of children in care.

Family Services Minister Jennifer Howard was not available Friday.

A government spokesman said during the last six years funding to the child-protection system has more than doubled to about $425 million a year, including 280 new positions.

The province has also brought in standards, including reinforcing the requirement for face-to-face contact, and implemented new risk-assessment tools to ensure workers conduct consistent risk assessments.

Miriam Browne, executive director-registrar of the Manitoba Institute of Registered Social Workers (MIRSW), said a College of Social Workers -- a mandatory regulatory body -- is needed.

She said by requiring registration and certification -- only her organization does it with its 1,000 members -- the public would be assured standards are upheld. There are an unknown number of social workers in the province who are not registered with the MIRSW.

The legislature passed the Social Work Profession Act in 2009 to create such a governing body, but it has not been proclaimed law yet.

"The act, when proclaimed, will control who can use that generic term social worker and that will be a big step forward," Browne said, adding the new act will replace 1966 legislation.

"Three years is a long time since the act was passed," she said.

"We have been pressuring and pushing and lobbying the Manitoba government to make the a priority for all social workers."

The province said a working group, chaired by Ovide Mercredi, is developing regulations under the act. Consultations will start in the spring.



"We must put this government on notice that children and families who require protection services in Winnipeg are at risk and we as workers feel unable to ensure their safety." -- Dec. 19, 2003 letter from Manitoba Government Employees Union to then-Family Services Minister Drew Caldwell on "present crisis" in child welfare at Winnipeg Child and Family Services.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition December 8, 2012 A3

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