There has been much said at the Phoenix Sinclair inquiry about the workload of child-welfare workers who, by any measure, were juggling more cases than is recommended by the Child Welfare League of America's standards for good practice. Disconcertingly, many of the numbers thrown about are inaccurate or dead wrong.
On the witness stand, a number of workers who had care of Phoenix's case after she was born in April 2000 have complained their caseloads were excessive, and that compromises had to be made, which meant Phoenix and her family for long spans were ignored. Workers and supervisors talked about averages of 30 to 40 cases, sometimes more. One worker recalled that when she started in the early 1990s, she would have upwards of 65 cases on her plate at a time.
Reports written in the wake of Phoenix's death in 2005 found workloads to be excessive, and quoted one worker who was handling Phoenix's file in 2003 as having 46 to 48 cases himself. That report, written by Andrew Koster for the department of Family Services, said Stan Williams was carrying two to three times the recommended caseload (child welfare league now recommends 17 cases per social worker) and, with his other responsibilities, did not have time to manage Phoenix's case nor others in his care.
That is not the department's version. Data provided to the inquiry looking into the handling of Phoenix's case show the workers involved had just more than 30 cases per month on average; one had about 24. Stan Williams averaged 32 cases. A lengthy exchange with a former supervisor for an emergency-response unit called "intake," heard that 30 to 40 cases were common. The math on the number of calls for services in 2003 made to the unit indicated it was more like 15 per worker per month (the CWLA says it should be 12 cases). That was described as faulty math, however, because it doesn't consider such things as sick leaves, vacation and time off for training.
While the numbers are an inexact measurement of work -- high-risk cases take more work than low-risk matters -- they are a sign of the load and the pressure on the system.
Workers, their union and the government that pays them disagree on what is a reasonable caseload, and, more particularly, how to measure workload so funding based on the number of cases can be appropriately set. The union argues that caseload/workload numbers cannot be set without considering the standards expected of child-protection workers -- how quickly and how often to visit depending on the level of need or risk faced.
The government does not follow the guidelines established by the child welfare league. It funds agencies to a level of one worker per 20 to 25 cases. There has been nothing said about how the government determined that to be adequate. As well, agencies can use the funding as they see best.
In letters released last week by the Manitoba Government and General Employees Union, the union warned Family Services ministers in 2002 and 2005 that changes being made to the CFS system to centralize intake and devolve child-welfare cases to native agencies wreaked havoc on workers' ability to meet children, respond to family calls for assistance and in the actual handing over of case summaries and files.
In the wake of her slaying, it was revealed Phoenix's file never was passed on to a native agency. It appears it slipped into the cracks of an overburdened system in which workers were tripped up, in part, by competing interests.
This inquiry will no doubt recommend fundamental changes to the delivery of services to children and families. That will have to be done with great care.
First, however, the government and agencies must agree how best to measure workload so funding and case assignment realistically meet demands from the houses where addictions, abuse, violence and poverty are abiding risks to children.