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Children play on the athletic track and a hurdle at the Rashpal Dhillon Track & Field Oval at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, B.C. In a report titled Choose Children, the B.C. Government and Service Employees’ Union calls for increased provincial funding to reduce “intolerable” workloads that leave children, youth and families at risk.

DARRYL DYCK/The Globe and Mail

A $182-million computer system that was supposed to reduce workloads within the province's chronically understaffed child protection services has actually made matters worse, a new report says.

The union representing front-line child workers consulted more than 3,000 individuals and community-based social service agencies. In a report titled Choose Children, the B.C. Government and Service Employees' Union calls for increased provincial funding to reduce "intolerable" workloads that leave children, youth and families at risk.

The computer program is just one more problem that is stretching an already-tattered safety net for the province's most vulnerable children, the report concludes.

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"The integrated case management [ICM] is an expensive record-keeping computer system that promised to make things more efficient for child, youth and family service workers," the report says. Instead, ministry workers say their clients have been ill-served by the slow and complex program, exacerbated by software glitches, that has at times left caseworkers without vital information, hampered police investigations and even produced a marked increase in incidents of violence toward front-line workers.

"The system may be so deeply flawed that it cannot be salvaged," the report says.

Last May, the ICM program crashed numerous times, but the government played down concerns that children were put at risk as a result.

Social workers have since been offered training on the system, and an upgrade is expected to be rolled out by the end of the year.

BCGEU president Stephanie Smith said her members consistently raised concerns that the program is slow and subject to frequent errors or data loss. "The way that people characterize this, it was great if you had a business and you wanted to know how many widgets are in the warehouse," she said. "But for complex human cases, it is simply inadequate."

At a time when social workers are working unpaid overtime to compensate for unfilled vacancies, she said the price tag for the program is especially galling. The $182-million budget is for the capital cost only, and the union says there are additional hidden costs in training.

Government officials say improvements to the system will be rolled out by the end of the year. The program is "operating normally" now after the series of failures in the spring, and the upgrade will make it easier for staff to enter and find key information.

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Overall, the BCGEU report chronicles the concerns and frustrations of front-line workers who go to work each day fearing that they will fail their clients.

Some front-line workers said they can't properly assess whether vulnerable lives are at immediate risk because of the number of cases they are responsible for. One child protection officer told the union the lack of support for the system is "perpetuating the abuse" that some of their clients endure. "We are going to have a dead kid at some point."

"The failure to guarantee basic service levels for vulnerable children, youth and families is not a new problem, but it is getting worse," the report states. Ten years ago, the province spent $360 per capita on child, youth and families services. Today the figure is $287.

On the ground, that means caseworkers are trying to serve more clients than they should, with outdated equipment and increasingly complex demands.

"It should be obvious: British Columbia cannot continue to the do child and family welfare on the cheap," the report concludes.

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