KJIPUKTUK (Halifax) – A former Community Services employee charges that high caseloads are negatively affecting both service to clients and staff morale.
The employee worked in the child welfare division as a caseworker and later as a frontline supervisor. She left her job in frustration after well over a decade with the department. The issues she raises echo concerns expressed by Community Services staff in a 2015 department-wide survey about job satisfaction.
“There is always someone crying”
“In the child welfare area in general, and especially in child protection there is way too much work for the individuals that are doing the job. There is a constant feeling of inadequacy, and a constant feeling of responsibility for the children, and not being able to meet their needs,” she tells the Nova Scotia Advocate.
“These are hardworking and dedicated individuals who really want to make a difference, and the impact of this is huge,” she says. “Families deserve a quick investigation and a quick intervention if you are in child protection. Things now are drawn out for much longer than should be the case.”
It is not so much that caseloads are exceeding departmental standards, it’s these departmental standards that are the issue, she explains, especially since paperwork has increased dramatically over the years. These workload issues cause high staff turnover.
Indeed, the 2015 survey suggests only half of all staff would prefer to stay with the government of Nova Scotia if offered a similar job elsewhere. And staff leaving in turn creates more work for remaining staff, especially since it takes up to four months to fill a vacancy, she says.
Caseworkers at Community Services have been getting a bad rap, she says, but that is undeserved. “The people we serve might feel that we don’t care. I understand it totally, but most people are busting their butts. They just can’t manage the workload,and it’s taking its toll.”
“There is always someone crying, there is always someone overwhelmed. We are told to get our work done, but we also feel the pressure from foster parents because we are not available to them. We feel sandwiched between these different pressures all the time,” says the former employee.
“These people were just tossed.”
The problem lies mostly with upper management in the department, she believes. “So much work is done to have a positive workplace at the local level. Supervisors and frontline staff work really hard to keep positive relationships happening and engage in good teamwork,” she says.
The employee survey backs up her claim. 68% or workers believe they get along well with their co-workers, and 64% state that their workplace is diverse, inclusive and respectful.
The problem is that senior management pushes the results of the survey back to the local office level, not recognizing that the issues are systemic and workload-related, she believes.
Part of the problem goes back two years, when the department engaged in a 2014-15 reorganization that saw layoffs of child welfare managers and the closure of several regional offices. At the time minister Joanne Bernard stated that layoffs would not increase the workload of the remaining workers. But that’s not what happened, says the former employee.
“I saw a lot of people who had given their heart and soul to the department. They worked and worked. They worked overtime for free, they were committed, because they wanted to make things better. Well, these people were just tossed. We lost a lot of talented people,” she says.
Foster parents and children also suffering
Staff in the child welfare division are not only overworked, they are facing a dwindling number of foster parents, says the former caseworker. The department needs to recognize that current reimbursement rates for foster parents are inadequate, which is not to suggest that foster parents are only in it for the money.
“Foster parents don’t get enough to feed a teenager. On top of that, for years the foster parents have been saying that not getting supported by the department is the really hard part,” she says.
There has never been a serious effort to change our foster care system, and now it is in a crisis,” she says. “These days when you place child in care they may end up at the other end of the province, or they may be placed in a group home somewhere, which is not in the child’s best interest.
“Probably seven years ago workers in our office decided that a teenager’s life would have to be at risk before he or she is taken out of their home,” she says. “We would just put them at risk by sending them to a group home in Halifax, where they are accessible to pimps and the street life. This is a very difficult decision for a social worker. There is no safe place to put these teenagers.”
“We have a responsibility to protect Nova Scotia’s children from neglect and abuse and we take that responsibility very seriously,” writes Heather Fairbairn, spokesperson for the department. “As a department, that means ensuring we have the resources and processes in place to respond to issues and provide support to those in need of our assistance. We review every referral to child protection services and follow up on a case by case basis.”
The department believes caseloads meet standards and rejects the claim by the former caseworker.
“The department adheres to recommended North American caseload standards and conducts ongoing monitoring to ensure these standards are being met. The complexity of cases, geographic area, education and experience of each caseworker is also taken into consideration when assessing caseload and assigning cases,” Fairbairn writes.
“We care about our employees and we recognize the job that they do is not an easy one. As we continue with the transformation of Community Services, we are ever mindful that we must remain focused on employees and making sure they are engaged and part of the process,” writes Fairbairn.
Convincing staff of that intention will remain a challenge. The 2015 employee survey suggests that only 39% believe that senior leadership will make a genuine effort to address the issues raised by employees in the survey. Only 36% of employees believe senior leadership are genuinely interested in their well-being. 32% believe senior leadership will make timely decisions.
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