Nova Scotia’s child welfare services are in urgent need of more funding

This op-ed by Lynn Brogan was originally published by Star Halifax on September 11, 2019

The standing committee on community services was offered conflicting accounts on the state of child welfare in Nova Scotia on Sept. 3.

The Nova Scotia College of Social Workers views the comments presented by the Department of Community Services as a missed opportunity to inform elected officials of not only the positive strides being made by their department, but also of what is not going well.

Information is power, and it is critical to equip our elected officials with the ability to make informed decisions that can make a difference in the lives of Nova Scotians.

The fact remains that Nova Scotia’s child welfare services are underfunded and many children and youth in this system are not doing well. We need to do something about that.

The Star reported, based on the provincial budget estimates, that the budget for the Child, Youth and Family Support Division has increased from $85 million in 2015-2016 to $96 million in 2019-2020.

Without a critical analysis of where the increases were allocated, these numbers should be viewed with scrutiny. What we do know is the increase represents about 5 per cent when factoring inflation, and very few much-needed resources went to increasing the number of frontline social workers.

Members of our college have shared their experiences of chronic challenges in the child welfare system with us and with their union, the Nova Scotia Government Employees Union. Some of these challenges include:

  • Unmanageable workload, high caseloads, and clients with ever-increasing complex needs. DCS policy on caseloads is over 20 years old and does not reflect current realities.
  • Increased administrative requirements and lack of administrative support.
  • Constant staff turnover, as well as recruitment and retention issues that affect the ability to serve families and children.
  • A high rate of system-wide changes, which challenges the readiness of staff and community organizations to implement the changes.
  • Lack of adequate services and programs in the community to meet complex needs of children, youth and families, and lack of coordination of these resources.
  • Unsupportive work environments.
  • Lack of professional development and training.
  • The emotional toll experienced from the work results in increased illnesses, burnout, compassion fatigue and vicarious trauma.

These challenges create a system in which social workers are going from crisis to crisis. Social workers go above and beyond in this province and they are the glue that holds the child welfare system together.

The chronic underfunding of social programs and necessary social work staffing often prevents social workers from doing the work they know would make a difference in the lives of the children, youth and families they serve.

What we’ve heard from social workers in this province mirrors a recent 2018 national study conducted by the Canadian Association of Social Workers, which involved thousands of social workers (“Understanding Social Work and Child Welfare: Canadian Survey and Interviews with Child Welfare Experts”).

The first priority of our college is the protection of the public, and we see an urgent need in Nova Scotia for government to make a real investment in social programs such as child welfare. Families must be supported when they first encounter challenges to prevent more serious problems that demand more intrusive solutions.

The financial investment a government makes speaks to their priorities. The provision of much needed services and supports to vulnerable children, youth and families must be a priority in Nova Scotia. An all-party commitment to increase the funding in child welfare is required to reduce the risk to children, youth and families, so they may experience success and thrive.

Lastly, there is a lack of a community voice and oversight of the child welfare system. Nova Scotia remains one of the few provinces that hasn’t implemented an independent Child and Youth Advocate office. As Rollie Thompson, a law professor at Dalhousie University, told reporters after presenting to the standing committee last Tuesday, an independent advocate office would ensure that policy discussions are informed by the voices of vulnerable children and youth. This office would provide accountability and transparency within the system that cares for the most vulnerable in our society.

Lynn Brogan is the Acting Executive Director / Registrar of the Nova Scotia College of Social Workers.