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British Columbia B.C. social workers union calls for safety review of ‘no-go zones’

A 2013 report by B.C.'s Representative for Children and Youth, Mary Ellen Turpel-Lafond, found the province was directing about $90-million a year to delegated agencies without a good idea of their performance.

Chad Hipolito/THE CANADIAN PRESS

The union representing B.C.'s social workers wants to know once and for all whether some of its members avoid areas of the province out of concern for their personal safety.

The union is calling for a health-and-safety review into so-called "no-go zones" that would also canvass what communications devices, such as satellite phones, are available to front-line workers. Concerns about such no-go zones, particularly in aboriginal communities, emerged last year in a report by the B.C. children's advocate, which examined the suicide of a 14-year-old girl living in a rural First Nations community.

The report included comments from a social worker who described threats to a colleague and not being allowed on reserve.

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The British Columbia Government and Service Employees' Union (BCGEU), which released a report on Thursday calling for an overhaul of aboriginal child and family services in the province, says its members still report areas where they are not comfortable working. The union says it wants the government to acknowledge and track the issue.

"[The Ministry of Children and Family Development] says there is no such thing as a no-go zone – but there are areas of the province where social workers are afraid to go and they have to get the police to go in ahead of them," union vice-president Doug Kinna said, adding that such areas are in cities as well as remote, rural places.

The union's report calls for a provincewide inventory and identification of so-called "no-go zones."

Children and Family Development Minister Stephanie Cadieux said in a statement that her ministry had only just received the report, but would review it. She also said the ministry hadn't heard directly from the union about the issues raised in the report.

"The B.C. government recognizes the challenges that many of our First Nations and Aboriginal children, youth and families face," Ms. Cadieux's statement said. "We will take the time we need as a ministry to review their recommendations from [the report] in the context of the other work currently underway."

Ms. Cadieux added that any changes to the system must involve aboriginal leaders.

In response to questions about last year's report from the children's advocate, Ms. Cadieux said at the time that no-go zones are not allowed and, if a social worker needs support of police to gain access on reserve, such support must be delivered. The ministry also said it has agreements with bands to ensure access to children on reserves who face health or safety concerns.

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Thursday's report from the union is a follow-up to a report released last year that flagged problems in B.C.'s child-services sector, including chronic understaffing, unmanageable workloads and safety concerns.

Those problems, along with others specifically related to aboriginal child services, are outlined in the new report, which recommends overhauling B.C.'s system to make it more helpful to children and families and more accountable for public funds it spends.

"The ideal outcome is that governments understand their role in supporting and prioritizing the resourcing for aboriginal child and family welfare in B.C.," BCGEU president Stephanie Smith said on Wednesday, referring to both the provincial and federal governments, which each have a role in aboriginal child services.

B.C.'s system also includes delegated aboriginal agencies, or DAAs, community-based groups empowered by the provincial government to provide child-welfare services in First Nations communities.

Delegated agencies have come under fresh scrutiny since 18-year-old Alex Gervais, who was in the care of Fraser Valley Aboriginal Children and Family Services Society, died last month after being placed in a hotel.

His death is under review by the province.

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A 2013 report by the Representative for Children and Youth, Mary Ellen Turpel-Lafond, found the province was directing about $90-million a year to delegated agencies without a good idea of their performance.

The new BCGEU report recommends full disclosure of funding to delegated agencies and an immediate review of all delegation agreements.

"We're not saying throw money at this issue – we're saying it needs to be resourced correctly," Ms. Smith said.

"So staffing, training – we need to find a way to co-ordinate these services better between delegated agencies and between [the Ministry for Children and Family Development]. … The communication between those two are very poor, and when that happens, children slip through the cracks."

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