On the front line of NWT child protection
Three Northwest Territories social workers say they remain overworked and need more staff as senior officials handle the fallout from a new, damning assessment of Child and Family Services.
Cabin Radio spoke to two current social workers and one former employee in the wake of October's report by the Office of the Auditor General, which concluded: "Many of the services provided to children and families in the Northwest Territories that we examined were in fact worse than when we examined them in 2014."
Manager Myza Gouthro and supervisor Charlotte Mackenzie, both based in Behchokǫ̀, described an environment of never-ending caseloads they shouldn't even have – but each declared their love for the job and paid tribute to a close bond among colleagues.
A third, former social worker attested to 'incredible' support from her co-workers, but said she was forced to quit two years ago as "standards of care got lower and lower and it felt really unethical."
She portrayed the NWT's social services at the time she left as struggling to attract and retain qualified staff, making 'desperate' hiring choices, and failing to adequately support front-line workers faced with long hours and tough decisions.
Declaring themselves unsurprised by the Auditor General's assessment, both Gouthro and Mackenzie – in interviews facilitated by the territorial government – blamed many of the report's findings on social workers' inability to keep pace with the required paperwork as fresh calls continue to come in.
"We do see our clients all the time. We are very hands-on, seeing them in person. Sometimes, it does get documented, but not right away," said Mackenzie, the daughter of Tłı̨chǫ Grand Chief George Mackenzie, who was born and raised in the community.
"It’s about seeing the clients first, then documenting when we can. We have to document everything, so sometimes it gets backtracked. But it gets there.
"Supervisors and managers are not supposed to have caseloads … but I have a high caseload, and I supervise the staff as well. I have 12 different families, and one of them involves nine children. I also have caseloads in southern BC, out-of-territory, and I’ve been the worker for those files for the last three years.
"It’s part of the job, I know. When workers do come here, they are well aware of the high caseloads. You just have to try your best and accept the workload as it is, and keep doing what you need to do."
'People are overworked'
Gouthro has been a social worker in the NWT for almost a decade. As a manager for the Tłı̨chǫ Community Services Agency, she oversees workers who not only administer child protection services but also handle Elder abuse, family violence, and adult services.
"We do have a high turnover … and I think it’s because we don’t have enough staff to complete all the work we need to do," Gouthro told Cabin Radio.
"We have more workers, right now, than we have had in a long time. We have close to the same amount of children accessing services here as Yellowknife does, but we have about half the staff that they do.
"People are being overworked. We are on-call 24 hours a day. At lunchtime, we’re on call. From 5pm till 8:30am, we’re on call. If anybody is sick or takes annual leave – because everybody needs their time, right? – that puts us in situations where, sometimes, we’ve had one person at the office and that’s it."
However, Gouthro says being able to continue handling front-line cases while also managing her team is what keeps her in the job.
"Because I get to do all those sorts of things, it has kept me here for so long. I love working with the children and families here, it’s an amazing community to work in," she said.
Mackenzie added: "I knew I was going to come here to work as soon as I was done school. I like this job. I know it’s very busy but I’ve accepted it.
"I am proud. I am confident and happy with this job. It’s very stressful, but at the same time we have great staff here that help each other out. Only we understand what we go through."
'I was done'
A third, former child protection worker told Cabin Radio they left their post in 2016 as "workers were just burned out ... or they didn't see children as children."
The former worker requested anonymity for fear of becoming unemployable should she be identified. Cabin Radio has verified her employment as an NWT social worker, but is not identifying the woman nor the communities in which she worked.
"I think all the social workers were burned out. I don’t think you get into social work to be a shitty social worker. The resources were not there," she said.
She described being unable to take children to see a dentist or physician, as she was told by superiors such treatment "was not a priority" in the face of mounting caseloads – leading her to feel children were being neglected.
She recalled one incident in which a 13-year-old girl she described as 'suicidal' was sent back to her high-risk family home because no alternative existed.
"The 13-year-old was refusing to go anywhere and only wanted to go to where her dad is, but there is a history of sexual abuse there," said the former social worker.
"She was removed from the home because of that [but] a decision was made that she could go there. It was 4:30 in the morning. She was freaking out. I was done. I did not know what else I could do – and it wasn’t only my decision.
"I asked my supervisor, 'Is this acceptable? Because this is our option right now. I have tried calling all these people and nobody wants to invite her into their home.'"
Details of that incident could not be independently verified as the files of those involved are private.
Checks 'take time'
Gouthro and Mackenzie both acknowledged situations similar to the one described by the former social worker, in which staff are faced with almost impossible decisions in the middle of the night, can happen – though they are uncommon.
"That’s sometimes kind-of difficult because you’re always trying to keep kids with family members," said Gouthro, explaining how social workers follow the Building Stronger Families philosophy implemented by the territorial government.
"Criminal record checks take time," she added – implying social workers often cannot wait for all the boxes to be checked when a child is in imminent danger and very few solutions are available.
"It is tough," said Mackenzie. "The children come first, and sometimes the parents or family members are not happy with the decision. But we always try our best to explain the reasons why we are handling it the way we do."
Gouthro, acknowledging she still feels overworked despite years of changes introduced by the territorial government, said nonetheless "a lot of good things were done to try to help everybody."
"But they came a bit too fast," she said, "and we weren’t able to learn all we needed to learn – especially, for example, our computer system, which has been and still is very difficult for us to use.
"Working on staff retention would definitely help. We have an issue with housing for our workers and we don’t have enough office space. I could hire 10 new social workers but I don’t have any space for them. That’s a big-picture piece that we don’t always look at. Housing and office space are things that keep people. If you have an office you can work out of, that will make you stay longer in a job."
'What's the plan?'
The former social worker asked Cabin Radio: "If you're wanting to address the problem, where's the money?"
"There was no support," she continued. "It was left upon us. It wasn’t like, 'Oh my goodness, let’s work through this.' It was, 'You’re on call, you make the decision, let me know when you decide.' It’s four o’clock in the morning. You want to go home."
The former worker also queried the ethnic makeup of Child and Family Services' Yellowknife headquarters, asserting: "It’s all white people. It’s all frickin’ white people from the south. Not one has lived in a community when 99.9 percent of kids in care are Indigenous, you know?"
The Department of Health and Social Services said it had no data regarding the ethnicity of Child and Family Services staff, but stated 26 percent of the entire department's employees are Indigenous.
The territorial government says it has already begun work to address many of the areas identified as failing in the Auditor General's report, with one priority being the introduction of new standards and more training.
Health and Social Services Minister Glen Abernethy, who recently survived a vote of confidence in the legislature, told reporters he has asked his department to deliver results within two years.
"I do think he believed in whoever was telling him this was going to work," said the former social worker, asked about the minister's attempts to turn around Child and Family Services, "but what is his plan now? It was almost cocky of him, some of the stuff he was saying. I felt like it was a little arrogant."
Gouthro, however, believes her team is now getting the leadership it needs from senior officials. She simply wants more people doing the job.
"I, personally, don’t think of kids being in danger," she said. "We did the work, just the paperwork fell flat. And that happens because we have very few employees."