B.C. Finance Minister Mike de Jong has promised to hire 100 new social workers for child protection this year to backfill the amply documented shortages of frontline staff.
"As a society, we must do what we can to support those who need it the most," he stated during his budget speech last week.
The theme of the budget is that since B.C. is flush with cash, it's time to address the deficit in social services.
But patching up the system of child protection is not a straightforward task. There are enough new social workers walking out of the University of B.C.'s School of Social Work each year to fill the new job postings. When the B.C. government promised 100 extra child-protection workers in the 2016 budget, however, recruitment and retention challenges undermined its commitment.
The net result of last year's hiring spree is that B.C. has just as many child-protection workers now as there were a year ago. It's not for lack of trying, but the difficult work of child protection is taking its toll on workers, and staff are quitting as fast as the government can recruit new employees.
"There aren't people beating down the doors to be child-protection social workers," Stephanie Cadieux, Minister of Children and Family Development, said in an interview. "I don't know how they get up and do this work every day. It's tough enough being the minister, but actually being the one interacting with those kids has got to be so emotionally challenging."
The minister, now in her fifth year holding the toughest portfolio in cabinet, has had to defend her government when the system fails to protect the most vulnerable children and youth in this province – over and over.
The most recent example is the death of a teenaged boy, Alex Gervais, who killed himself after he was bounced through 17 care placements over 11 years and then was parked in a hotel to fend for himself.
Social workers at the delegated agency that served Alex spoke to The Globe and Mail last fall, on condition of anonymity, about their daily working conditions. "I have often gone home from work wondering if I have left a child at risk because I could not respond," said one. Overwhelming caseloads mean they simply have to ignore some files and hope for the best. "There are days when I go home feeling defeated," said another.
Being a social worker in the field of child protection has never been an easy job. But after more than a decade of spending cuts, of holding the line, of being asked to do more with less, the province is now trying to find ways to lure more people into the most difficult-to-recruit regions.
Last November, the government agreed to pay frontline ministry social workers in hard-to-recruit areas annual bonuses of up to $6,000 per year. The first bonuses will be paid in April.
But Stephanie Smith, president of the B.C. Government and Service Employees Union, which represents social workers, predicted the bonus will not be enough to staunch the bleeding of social workers.
"I really do believe they are hiring as many social workers as they can," Ms. Smith said in an interview. "But the compensation package across the board is a determinant to keep qualified workers. As quickly as we are bringing in people through the front door, people are leaving out the back."
Ms. Smith says the burnout rate is not just a reflection of inadequate compensation, but of inadequate resources to do the job. "How do you triage the work of keeping families together and supporting families in crisis? There just isn't the time to do the work. I can only imagine, on an emotional level, how debilitating that is."
Ms. Cadieux said there are new hires on the way, with 45 social workers expected to start by the end of March. As well, the ministry is hiring administrative staff to free up social workers to spend more time with their clients.
The New Democratic Party critic for children and families, Melanie Mark, said the government has created the conditions that make it so hard to live up to their recent hiring commitments.
"Their leader – the minister – has set them up to fail," she said. "The frontline workers put up with these headlines day-in and day-out about how many kids are dying under their watch, and it's not their fault."
The B.C. Liberal government has achieved five consecutive surplus budgets by keeping a rein on spending on costly social programs including child protection. Now, the government says it can afford to make it better for the province's most vulnerable citizens. To do that, it first needs to make the job of providing child protection a better, more rewarding, career.