Open letter: Searching for hope in child protection

May 19, 2022

The Honourable Minister Karla MacFarlane, M.L.A.
Department of Community Services
8th Floor, Nelson Place 
5675 Spring Garden Road
P.O. Box 696
Halifax, NS B3J 2T7

Sent via email:

Re: Open letter – Searching for hope in child protection 

Dear Minister MacFarlane

Nova Scotians were exposed to the hard truth on May 16 when Saltwire choose to publish the article “No child protection for Syrian refugee punched and lashed in N.S. for texting with a boy.” 

I imagine that this story brought up many feelings for you and for all the staff at the Department of Community Services. Media stories on child protection rarely capture the complexity of decisions like these. I can only imagine how frustrating it is to not be able to respond to criticism because of the crucial ethical principle of confidentially.

When Nova Scotians see stories like this that paint a picture of a system that isn’t working in the interest of children, it strengthens the narrative that public services cannot meet our needs and continues to erode trust in crucial government services. For social workers, emotions run in many directions: anger that their actions are portrayed as uncaring, frustration that there is not a broader understanding by Nova Scotians of their role, and moral distress as they are consistently asked to take on tasks that are counter to their core values and training and that they know will cause harm.

For myself, despite disappointment in Saltwire for running a story that they knew would contribute to anti-Arab discrimination, despair for a system that has been far too neglected, and hurt for all the social workers who bear the brunt of public scrutiny when these stories emerge, I am currently feeling a moment of hope, however fleeting it may be. Hope that this story will highlight for you, the Premier, your cabinet colleagues, and all Nova Scotians why transformative change is urgently needed in the provision of child welfare. 

Stories like this one rarely capture the lived experiences of families, and the context of their histories, culture and relationships. They rarely examine how these lives may intersect with government systems ineffective at meeting the needs of families who’ve experienced complex trauma, such as coming from a country embroiled in civil war into a dehumanizing refugee and immigration system that lacks substantial supports for meaningful integration into Nova Scotian society. Let alone capture how these lives intersect with Canada’s history of colonialism, enslavement, segregation, and internment, and the reverberation of these projects designed to displace, dispossess, and disempower particular racialized groups. 

The Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives in their Child and Family Report Card reports that 67.8% of Arab children live in poverty in Nova Scotia. Like many of my social work colleagues, I am filled with despair by how the intersections of poverty, domestic violence, and government policy can exacerbate the effects of abuse, cause an exceptional loss of resources for survivors, and lessen positive outcomes for families. We feel such hurt for clients who are doubly entrapped, as poverty slows down the process of escape from the abuse that has kept them mired in poverty.

My hope comes from knowing that you have engaged in work to legislate a reduction in child poverty. I know that you understand that income is a crucial protective factor. I have confidence in your courage to tackle family and poverty. I have hope that you recognize that poverty has been legislated into existence. I have hope that over your time in government you will make the choice to correct the political decisions of previous governments’ policy approaches to social welfare, to ensure that social programs become adequate to bring our people above the poverty line, and that newcomer families like this one have the tools they need to thrive in Nova Scotia. 

However, I am filled with despair when reflecting on the amended Children and Family Services Act, as it remains a profoundly flawed legislation. The previous government made amendments to extend the jurisdiction of the Act to enable protective services to youth aged 16 to 19, but short-sightedly placed limits on that intervention. Critical questions were raised when the act was being amended on whether these provisions adequately protect our most vulnerable youth. Advocates’ fears have been realized in cases where your department is unable to intervene without the youth’s consent even when violence is in the home or in cases of human trafficking. 

In contrast I feel hope when I hear the Deputy Minister commit to a fulsome review of the Children and Family Services Act. I hope that you and your government can do deep engagement and directly listen to the stakeholders’ families and the clients who’ve been affected by the system, and that you make a choice to transform the act. I have hope that you will engage directly in this process to ensure that a transformative act upholds the principles of least intrusive intervention, while government spending is increased in order to provide support for the well-being for families. I have hope that you will have the foresight and compassion to remove the worst aspects of social control and carceral logic from the act while ensuring the tools are in place to provide protective services to protect all youth.

I have great despair knowing that social workers on the ground are left without the fundamental tools to do their jobs, such as access to culturally relevant services, programs to ensure adequate income, and services that allow families who have experienced complex trauma to heal and be nurtured. 

While I find some hope in current actions being taken by DCS to remove many of the administrative functions from current child protection workloads, my despair grows greater when reflecting on the 30-year old policy on caseloads, which is frequently out of compliance (policy is 20 cases but average caseload is 24), and which is not aligned with policy in other Canadian jurisdictions or internationally. Given the recruitment and retention issues particular to rural Nova Scotia, the caseload numbers for social workers in Yarmouth are likely much larger. This leaves social workers in an impossible position, running from fire to fire, trying to keep families together with limited resources. 

Both you and your deputy minister have publicly recognized how complex child welfare practice is, how difficult it is, and how many skills go into it. Despite your kind words to the profession and your workers, your actions have not yet followed suit, as caseload policy is not being reviewed. 

However, I believe there is hope, Minister. Your government showed great courage, and great foresight, when tackling the crisis in long-term care. You recognized the dangerous damage austerity can cause, you’ve recognized that workers must be given meaningful work that is manageable, and your government is working towards sustainable staff-client ratios in the long-term care sector. I have great hope that through your courage and leadership you can apply the same analysis and thinking to the provision of child welfare and bring their caseloads towards international standards.

Minister, many Nova Scotian families face despair magnified by the pressing concerns of this moment: the effects of the pandemic, economic uncertainty and soaring inflation. It is within your capacity to bring hope to these families, particularly the most vulnerable. Your caucus and leader campaigned on hope as you know it is essential to a cohesive, thriving society. I hope that my letter can inspire the type of bold change that is needed. 


Alec Stratford, MSW, RSW
NSCSW Executive Director/Registrar