Cost brings down counselling centre

Unique free programs parcelled out


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A unique free counselling centre has quietly taken down its sign, shuffling key mental-health services to other agencies in a year of belt-tightening.

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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 13/08/2010 (4605 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

A unique free counselling centre has quietly taken down its sign, shuffling key mental-health services to other agencies in a year of belt-tightening.

On July 15, the University of Manitoba announced it would no longer operate the Elizabeth Hill Counselling Centre, a non-profit agency funded by the Manitoba government and run by the U of M’s faculty of social work. For 20 years, the arrangement saw the U of M train counsellors, conduct research and provide psychological support to children and adults, especially those affected by abuse, violence and poverty.

The counselling centre’s three core programs still live, parcelled out to other agencies: Its groundbreaking Men’s Resource Centre will be administered by the Laurel Centre, and the Strengthening Families program will now be run by New Directions. The university retained the Couples Project, which helps couples heal from domestic violence.

The Manitoba government has assumed the lease for the centre’s space on the third floor of 321 McDermot Ave. It will now be dubbed the New Directions Parenting Centre, and there may be opportunities to offer expanded programs for at-risk families there in the future, a government spokeswoman said.

"(The transition has) gone extremely well," said Carolyn Loeppky, the province’s assistant deputy minister for family services. "There has been little or no interruption in services provided. When you have some staffing changes, there’s always a little bit of transition there. But we are extremely pleased with the level of co-operation and the willingness to share."

The majority of staff are continuing on in their positions, Loeppky said. Others were reportedly offered a severance package.

Still, the change comes with sadness. The Elizabeth Hill Counselling Centre was a "unique creature" for the university, social work dean Harvy Frankel said Tuesday. Originally opened as the Community Resource Clinic in 1990, the centre was renamed a year later in honour of the beloved U of M professor who drove the clinic’s creation. Hill, a pioneer in aboriginal social work, died in 1991.

Before long, the centre was taking up to 600 referrals a year. By 2003, it had treated more than 1,850 families, couples and individuals, and trained almost 300 students. "When I meet with other deans across the country, they say, ‘Gee, what a wonderful setting, I wish we could do this. How do you do it?’" Frankel said. "It wasn’t something we were anxious to let go of… but the tone of the times sort of took over."

In other words, money got in the way. "Throughout, the province was funding us as if we were a social agency, and we’re not," Frankel said, pointing to the volume of research the U of M conducted through the centre. "That means different costs, different expenses and different work."

It also means different wages. Differing collective agreements between social service agencies and the University of Manitoba union meant provincial funding didn’t keep pace with the counselling centre’s staff wages. Those costs added up: Last year, after exhausting the last of its extra money, the centre was projecting a $150,000 deficit, a cost the cash-strapped U of M decided it could not absorb. The Manitoba government declined to cover the deficit, citing "no more money," sources said. And so the gears of transition started to turn.

The closure won’t pose a crisis for social-work students, Frankel said. Research and work practicums will continue at the new agencies. However, the changes could complicate research access. Although Frankel praises the agencies that adopted the former counselling centre’s programs, he worries that some of the unique expertise from U of M faculty that helped shape the programs, such as "very intensive" parent-child therapy techniques, could fade away as the programs move forward under different flags.

"Our preference clearly would have been to get increased funding from the province… because the service was unmatched," Frankel said. "And the place is special to us because it was named after Elizabeth.



Melissa Martin

Melissa Martin

Melissa Martin reports and opines for the Winnipeg Free Press.

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