THE review of Manitoba's child welfare system released in September found, almost at every turn it seemed, that there was a problem with the way agencies respond to children and families in need. This ranged from the technology used to track cases to the fundamentals -- the education and training of front-line workers. An accompanying review found that workloads were too heavy.
Those reviews reinforced the anecdotal and documented evidence that workers are carrying as many as 38 cases. Other jurisdictions cap loads at 25 and an association of social service organizations in the United States has recommended limiting loads to 15 cases per worker. Workers at the long-standing Winnipeg Child and Family Services Agency juggle an average of 38 cases and those under the Southern CFS authority handle as many as 30. In September, responding to recommendations on systemic practices and protocols, Family Services Minister Gord Mackintosh promised funding to ease up on the demands on workers. Another 72 workers have been added, most of them to the front-line staff of 650.
A front line worker must have the ability to respond to the immediate demands of the job, watch closely those children at potential risk and document their own actions so that no child gets lost. The better evaluation of demands on a worker is to measure their workload, which varies widely depending on the type of cases they deal with, the more onerous and stressful being children at risk. The review into the death of Phoenix Sinclair made it plain that many things contributed to the system's failure, which left the girl vulnerable to extraordinary abuse and, ultimately, tragedy. Workload was highlighted as a concern, but so too were the lack of compliance by workers and agencies with operating policies and standards, insufficient documentation, and the inadequacy of training of front-line workers on something as basic as recognizing signs of abuse. The broader review unearthed stories of new social work graduates being thrown into the job with no orientation or mentoring, and the fact that some agencies were hiring the best they could find in remote communities -- a resident who had little education and no training.
The demands must be reduced on workers, but setting caseloads by formula ignores the fluidity and variety in child welfare work. A worker tasked with tracking families in crisis while also trying to find a safe place for a pre-teen on the streets is under greater pressure than one with a stable caseload mix.
Hard numbers and set limits make good grist in contract negotiations, but it can too tightly bind the hands of managers and workers. Averaging caseloads lets an agency manage the varied demands for assistance, prevention and intervention, recognizing that a recent graduate cannot assume the same load as a veteran front-line worker and some staff will have to mentor the neophytes. Agencies must have the ability to track workloads and adjust demands on workers accordingly. Finally, provincial standards describing the education or equivalent experience required for a new hire would help ensure agencies and workers can better handle the demands they encounter.