Taxpayer-supported agency that helps families faces its own crisis
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Some employees of a publicly funded organization that helps Manitoba youth in crisis are calling for the ouster of its CEO, who insists she’s treating allegations of poor management practices “very seriously.”
Anonymous workers at The Link, formerly Macdonald Youth Services, have sent letters asking Premier Heather Stefanson and Families Minister Rochelle Squires to launch an independent investigation and financial audit.
In interviews with the Free Press, three employees claimed a crisis at The Link, whose CEO is Kerri Irvin-Ross, a former deputy premier under the NDP, is hurting the quality of service to youth and families.
“This has real-life implications for the most vulnerable youth in Manitoba,” said one of the employees, who agreed to speak on condition of anonymity. “Staff are there because they believe in how The Link can help. With (this) leadership, it’s impossible.”
The group wants Irvin-Ross, chief operating officer Diane Ward and the board of directors to be removed from Manitoba’s largest youth-serving organization, which has more than 10,000 clients.
The group believes The Link should be Indigenous-led, given about 80 per cent of its clients are Indigenous.
Irvin-Ross, who remains at the helm, defended her leadership and said The Link’s 300-plus employees are welcome to raise concerns with her or during cultural values assessments.
“It’s disappointing that it’s been brought from the outside, and not from internally,” said Irvin-Ross, the CEO since 2018.
The employees said staff have raised concerns through proper internal channels, but claimed many were ignored or met with hostility.
Board chair Candace Olson, a Winnipeg lawyer, defended the organization and said the directors have “full confidence” in Irvin-Ross.
Irvin-Ross and Olson suggested some staff are struggling with The Link’s efforts to transform and adapt programs and services to today’s societal needs.
“This has real-life implications for the most vulnerable youth in Manitoba.”–Anonymous employee
“This plan has resulted in service delivery changes such as hours of operation, integration of Indigenous initiatives, enhanced training on intergenerational trauma, colonization and systemic racism, and community partnerships,” Olson wrote in an email. “We understand that change is often difficult particularly for those who have to adapt to new service delivery challenges.
“We will continue to make considered changes to better serve our community and in doing so, we will always consult and listen to concerns from our employees as well as the many communities we serve.”
The employees said they expected to be characterized as disgruntled.
They claim high turnover is evidence of wider concern about management and structural changes in the 91-year-old organization, which provides support for mental health, addictions, emergency shelter, housing, education and employment.
An Instagram account, called Dark Side of The Link, has published allegations about racism, tokenism, a lack of diversity, unfair treatment of employees, understaffing, non-disclosure agreements, potential conflicts of interest and a lack of board oversight.
The employees claim workplace conditions are hurting the mental health of some staff.
“People seem to be walking on eggshells,” said an employee. “If you don’t have good management, that affects the workers. If the workers are affected, the kids are affected.”
The account has gained about 600 followers while sharing anecdotes allegedly written by current and former staff, and youth helped by The Link.
A letter listing the allegations was sent to all MLAs this week, including Stefanson and Squires, and Sherry Gott, Manitoba’s advocate for children and youth, the group said.
The employees didn’t sign the letter because they fear retribution or jeopardizing future job prospects.
“If you don’t have good management, that affects the workers. If the workers are affected, the kids are affected.”–Anonymous employee
The press secretary for Squires issued a statement to the Free Press: “Our government and the Department of Families takes all matters regarding services to children and families, as well as financial accountability for funded services, seriously. Boards of directors of community agencies are independent entities not governed by the Manitoba government. We are in communication with management at The Link. At this time, it would not be appropriate to provide further comment.”
Liberal Leader Dougald Lamont called on the province to immediately suspend The Link’s executive and board, begin an investigation and audit, and work with Indigenous groups to find an administrator.
The Link receives almost all of its annual funding — about $26 million — from the province and Child and Family Services agencies, its annual reports show.
Other donors include the federal government, the United Way and the Winnipeg Foundation.
Irvin-Ross and Olson said The Link is developing an action plan based on feedback from staff in meetings and surveys in an independent cultural values assessment in 2022.
“We will continue to make considered changes to better serve our community and in doing so, we will always consult and listen to concerns from our employees as well as the many communities we serve.”–Kerri Irvin-Ross
They said the organization aims to improve in areas such as communication, employee recognition, access to mental health resources and training.
The employees who spoke to the Free Press claim some Indigenous employees and clients feel they’re being exploited or used for optics when they’re asked to speak at events.
In response to claims of racism or tokenism, Irvin-Ross said The Link holds presentations to educate staff and follows Truth and Reconciliation Commission calls to action.
She said the number of employees who identify as Indigenous has increased under her watch.
Irvin-Ross said The Link has strategies to recruit and retain staff, and she would like wages to increase, but that depends on government funding.
The employees claim The Link doesn’t share enough information about its spending with staff or the public.
“We understand that change is often difficult particularly for those who have to adapt to new service delivery challenges.”–Board chair Candace Olson
Money spent on furniture and a lobby renovation, including a waterfall wall, in a Mayfair Avenue office built in 2017 could have gone toward helping clients, they said.
Irvin-Ross said the lobby was renovated using capital funds to make it a warm and welcoming space for clients.
The organization has oversight from a finance committee, is audited by a third party and sends reports to funders, she said.
United Way Winnipeg trusts The Link’s board of directors to handle any concerns, said spokesman Jason Granger.
The federal government did not comment before press time.
As a general assignment reporter, Chris covers a little bit of everything for the Free Press.