Too many kids, not enough social worker

Top bureaucrat’s candid report spells out many problems, some successes



Social workers in Nunavut are handling too many cases without enough money or resources.

That’s just one complaint in a candid annual report by Norm Murray, the Government of Nunavut’s director of child and family services.

While Nunavut’s population has grown, the number of social workers has not. This means that 51 front-line social workers are too few to go around.

Social workers in Iqaluit, Cambridge Bay and Kugluktuk are handling more files than recommended by the Child Welfare League of Canada, the report said.

In some communities, the heavy case load is made worse by an agreement that sees social workers also functioning as probation officers for the Department of Justice. That should ease as the justice department gradually hires and distributes more probation officers of its own.

Finding social workers is another problem. Everywhere in Canada, turnover is high for social workers, who often burn out on the job.

The problem for Nunavut, said Murray earlier this month, is being able to replace social workers quickly.

His department is working on a standardized job description, so that when a social worker quits, an advertisement for the job can go up right away.

Nunavut is the only jurisdiction in Canada without a computerized child protection system.

Children in care are tracked through an Excel database that is manually updated and not always correct.

That makes it difficult for caseworkers to view files on a child. It also makes it hard for Murray to compile statistics that might help his department make a case for more funding.

And while life is already difficult for Nunavut’s social workers, it is made more difficult by a lack of resources for the children they are trying to help.

Nunavut has many foster families, mostly Inuit, but more are always needed.

Foster parents also need more training, but Murray says he’s “fearful” of importing a southern training program for Inuit foster parents. Instead, he hopes to see more grassroots foster parents associations starting, like the one in Iqaluit.

Nunavut has an all-around shortage of facilities for kids with special needs.

There are two group homes for handicapped children, but no live-in facilities for children with behavioural disorders — in spite of the high rate of fetal alcohol spectrum disorder.

Instead, the territory spends millions of dollars sending children to homes in Edmonton and elsewhere.

Murray wonders whether these kids benefit in the end, when they return to their communities.

“Are we showing them a lifestyle they can’t have?”

The territory is in talks about building a youth group home, Murray said.

Services are also in short supply for Nunavut’s youth who are older than 16, and not automatically eligible for foster care, and younger than 18, when they could receive income support.

Support services agreements can provide these youth with money for rent, food and clothes, but that means the kids must find their own accommodation.

“We have to be very careful we don’t enter into an agreement with youth saying they don’t have to listen to their parents,” Murray said.

GN budget cuts are also beginning to affect youth services. Recently one job was cut at the Isumaqsunngittukkuvik young offenders centre in Iqaluit, taking one more youth worker off the floor.

In general, Murray says, social workers in Nunavut find they do not have to protect children from abuse.

“More children come into care through neglect,” he said.

Murray meets regularly with counterparts from other parts of Canada, and said that social work is somewhat different in Nunavut.

“In some ways we’re ahead,” Murray said.

Many programs are voluntary. The goal is to keep families together as long as possible. Social workers try to help families before taking the major step of taking kids away. That can mean providing money for a crib, or finding a babysitter when a parent has to go away for medical reasons.

Murray recently shared some policy documents on placing children with other family members before looking at foster care.

“They’re just starting to look at kinship placements in the South. We’ve been doing that for 18 to 20 years.”

While Nunavut’s social services are troubled, the department has made several improvements since 1999.

Pay rates for foster parents went up and is now the highest in Canada, and a foster parent handbook has been published.

Training for new social workers has been improved, and child protection standards have been imposed. Until 2001, many social workers left Nunavut for reasons of professional liability, Murray wrote in a previous annual report.

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