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‘Terrifying feeling:’ Children’s aid strike in Ontario and its impact on the rest of province

A children’s aid society in eastern Ontario has been on strike for almost three weeks over workload issues their union says is plaguing all child protection workers across the province.

The child-care workers at Family and Children’s Services of Lanark, Leeds and Grenville and management were at odds over contract negotiations for more than a year. Then, on July 12, the union decided to take the matter to the picket line.

“Nobody wanted it to come to this, but we’ve been without a contract for a long time,” said Sabrina Annett, one of the frontline child protection workers currently on strike.

But, with the safety of already vulnerable children at risk, how much longer can a strike like this continue? And could the problems at this small rural children’s protection agency be a sign of things to come at other agencies across the province?

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According to Annett, child protection workers at the Brockville-area child service agency are drowning in work and not being given the support they need to deliver the services the province is promising to children and their families.

She said on top of the 18 to 24 files that she has to juggle regularly, she is routinely tasked with taking on new cases that needed immediate, often emergency attention.

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“It’s not uncommon for us to have 10 assignments a day and you’re looking around for the 10 bodies, who is going to get them?” she said.

Annett said that before the strike, staff were simply responding to “crisis after crisis,” and unable to actually deliver the services promised by the province meant to keep children safe and with their families.

“It’s a terrifying feeling,” said Annett, explaining how she dreads getting a new assignment during a week when she might have already missed seeing four or five families. “I have to pick and choose who gets my attention. You’re hoping you pick the right one and that the family that’s been waiting in crisis is going to be OK another day.”

Lorrie Pepin is a member of CUPE’s social services worker coordinating committee and president of CUPE 5319 for the Simcoe Muskoka Child, Youth and Family Services. CUPE represents child protection workers in Ontario, and is working with the Lanark, Leeds and Grenville workers to try to broker a deal.

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CUPE suggested Global News speak with Pepin about child protection workload issues, which she said are not unique to Lanark, Leeds, and Grenville.

“Our workers are being crushed by unreasonable workloads,” said Pepin, who has also been a child protection worker since 1999.

In 2020, the provincial government shifted its focus in child protection work, namely, to emphasize prevention tactics meant to keep children with their families, to put them in placements with close family members like grandparents, called kinship placements, and to keep them from being placed in group homes. But, Pepin said, the financial support for those changes was not provided.

“Prevention work actually costs more than doing the (traditional) protection work,” Pepin said.

Annett said before the strike, she and her coworkers were missing appointments regularly, leading to frustrated and angry families.

“I was constantly apologizing for running late, cutting visits short, cutting appointments short, missing a network meeting, not pulling together kin,” Annett said.

She said dealing with family members frustrated with the system made her already sensitive work — intervening in people’s family lives, dealing with their children — even more difficult.

New quality standards are also bogging down child protection workers, Pepin said.

“It’s an administrative burden and it’s taking our time away from actually doing the work with the children and youth,” she said.

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These workload issues were actually brought up to the province in 2011, but Pepin said they have simply been ignored by both the Liberal and the Progressive Conservative governments in power.

She said that child protection is currently going through a “staffing crisis.” People are not signing up to do the work, leaving those left in the job sometimes working 30 to 40 hours a week in overtime.

“It’s not healthy for the workers. And in turn, it’s also not relaying to quality work with the families. So we are really doing a disservice to the children, youth and families that we’re working with when we spread ourselves so thin,” she said.

She said she knows of several other agencies who are going to be bargaining their contracts soon, and those agencies might follow the lead of Lanark, Leeds and Grenville and call their own strikes.

Who is going to pay for the work?

The truth is, according to both staff and management, that Family and Children’s Services of Lanark, Leeds and Grenville is operating with less staff, less money and more complex cases than it was five years ago.

CUPE says at the Lanark, Leeds and Grenville agency alone, there have been 46 staff members who have left since 2018, the start of the last contract, with 24 union positions lost.

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Many of those staff members are simply not being replaced, Annett said.

It’s a problem that Erin Lee Marcotte, executive director of the children’s services organization, said she recognizes.

“We have absolutely reduced staff, both union and non-union staff, and that makes us operate now, we’re very lean,” Marcotte said.

Also, over the last five years, management, and the board of directors at the eastern Ontario children’s aid service said it has seen its funding reduced by millions.

Allocation budgets for the provincially funded agency provided to Global News show that the organization’s budget has gone from more than $20.4 million for the 2017-2018 year, while planning allocation for the 2023-2024 year was just over $17.9 million, a difference of about $2.5 million.

Mike Andrews, board chair for the children’s aid society, called the reduction in funding “death by a thousand cuts.”

Despite the clear reduction in funds, the Ministry of Children, Community and Social Services says the Lanark, Leeds and Grenville agency has not had its funding cut.

A statement that garnered a strong reaction from Andrews.

“I’m baffled how anyone who could read a financial statement, could look at our statements, and say that our funding hasn’t been cut,” Andrews said.

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Although the ministry would not respond to a request for comment to clarify the discrepancy, it’s important to note that funding for all 50 children’s services agencies across the province is determined by the same formula. This formula sections out each year’s funding — this year it’s $1.5 billion for the whole province — to all agencies depending mainly on two factors: volume of cases and socio-economic factors of each region.

But Marcotte argued that agencies like Lanark, Leeds and Grenville that have a small population spread out across a large geographic area are negatively affected by the funding formula.

Andrews added that although the organization’s socio-economic factors afford it just over one per cent of the total provincial funding, its actual case numbers represent 1.27 per cent of the total.

“So our workload is actually about 25 per cent higher than is projected by our socioeconomic factors. This means that in our counties, which is a larger geographic area than Prince Edward Island, we effectively get paid less for each element of workload that’s completed,” Andrews said.

Both Marcotte and Andrews said they penned a letter to Michael Parsa, Minister of Children, Community and Social Services, prior to the strike, asking him to address their concerns with the funding formula. They said they have yet to receive a response.

Marcotte also noted that caseloads have decreased over the last several years, which adds to a reduction in funding, but emphasized how complex cases have become.

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“When you throw in a pandemic and all of the impact of that, social isolation, issues around homelessness, opioid crises, inflation, cost of living, poverty, all of those things make the situations that come to our front door very complicated,” Marcotte said.

Both Annett and Pepin reiterated the complexity of cases, especially when it comes to mental health and drug use.
“I can say I’m seeing an increase in kids who are threatening and attempting suicide, kids who are abusing and using fentanyl,” Annett added.

What’s needed to come back to the table

Annett says she and her fellow child protection workers are “very worried” about the children and family members they usually care for while they’re out on the picket line.

“We’re afraid someone’s going to get hurt while we’re out,” she said.

A statement from the Ministry of Children, Community and Social Service said that child protection workers are not considered essential workers and that the ministry is not currently considering any back-to-work legislation for the organization.

“The society and union continue to negotiate in good faith, and we are hopeful that by working together the parties can reach a settlement,” the ministry said.

Management said that it does have contingency plans in place for strike action, and that because many of the executive team were once case workers, they have experience dealing with families.

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And although Andrews gave kudos to the management team, he said that it’s a stretch to cover the work of dozens of child protection workers.

So what would it take to get the two parties back to the table?

Although Marcotte said she wouldn’t “negotiate in the media,” Annett said that one tangible concession would be mileage. Considering the large area the organization covers, Annett and her coworkers no longer want to pay for their own gas.

“At this point, we’re all subsidizing our employer with our travel. We’re paying out of pocket,” Annett said.

But the real struggle, according to Annett, is the need for more bodies — something it’s unclear they will get.

What is clear is that both sides seem sympathetic to the other.

“It’s not war against management,” said Annett, who said several times that she knew her bosses were not intentionally overloading her with work.

Marcotte said she and other members of the executive have a lot of empathy for their workers.

“We’ve tried to sort of utilize the tools and the supports that we have. But we are short on resources and we’ve had to make some tough decisions of an agency dating back to 2019,” she said.

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As of Tuesday, Marcotte said talks have resumed, but there has been no word on how close the two sides are coming to a deal.

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