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Friday, October 3, 2014

Social workers need more support, says expert

The following article appeared in the Saskatoon Star Phoenix following my presentation at the Prairie Child Welfare Consortium Symposium


Lessons learned from inquiries into foster child deaths usually don't get discussed with front line social workers, an expert in child protection says.
"Inquiries keep talking about the same practise problems ... We're not having enough conversation with front-line social workers about what the inquiries are telling us," said Peter Choate, a social work professor at Calgary's Mount Royal University who has studied almost 1,000 deaths of children in care in Canada, the U.K., New Zealand, Australia and the United States.
Inadequate case assessments, training and supervision are common themes emerging from the inquiries, Choate said.
Good case plans depend upon thorough assessments that include people who are too often "invisible" - the child and new adults in the child's life, he said.
Too often children at risk are not actually seen or talked to by social workers. New boyfriends or other adults who are in the picture are ignored.
Social workers need to be willing to question information they receive and they need to be able to talk with supervisors about what they've gathered, Choate said.
"How do we get our social workers and child protection workers to be more reflective about the information they need and how to gather that information and what to do with that information? What are the barriers to getting good assessments?" Choate said in an interview Wednesday, at the opening of a threeday conference for social workers and policy-makers from across Western Canada.
The inquiries show that supervisors who discuss findings and decisions made with the front-line social workers yield better results, he said.
"If the assessment's been done well and the family's really been listened to in the assessment process, then outcomes are better."
Social workers' skills can't be taken for granted. Newly graduated professionals still need years of supervision and experience, in addition to specialized training in things like addictions, mental health, sexual assault, physical and emotional abuse, child development and risk.
Child death inquiries must create conversations between the public, families, child protection agencies and government about learning how to do a better job, he said.
"If they're about shame and blame, nothing useful comes from them because people take cover, they don't want their case to be the next one in the newspaper.
"It's tough work. Turnovers are high. If we pay for enough social workers, provide them with good supervision and support and give them the opportunity to do the job well, then our turnovers will go down," Choate said.
The funding problem is acute in federally funded First Nations child welfare authorities, which are said to receive about 22 per cent less funding than provincially funded agencies. "You have a moral, ethical question of why would you be funding First Nations child welfare at a lower rate," Choate said.
"If we want to make the apology that (Prime Minister Stephen) Harper made about the tragedy of residential schools, then you have to be willing to make that apology real, to fund the work necessary to repair that, which is partially through funding the child welfare resources available to First Nations communities."
The funding disparity is the basis of a discrimination complaint against the Government of Canada that was brought to the Canadian Human Rights Commission by the First Nations Child and Family Caring Society of Canada and the Assembly of First Nations.
A tribunal has been hearing evidence on the matter since early 2013. Final arguments will be heard Oct. 20 to 24 in Ottawa.
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