Clients haven’t seen the cracks in services, but workers at Children’s Aid Society of Toronto (CAST) have felt them growing for years. Now these critical front line workers and support staff have delivered a near unanimous mandate, authorizing their leadership to call a strike if their employer refuses to meet the growing needs of the city’s most vulnerable.

Eighty per cent of the CUPE 2316 membership – comprised of nearly 500 child protection workers, child and youth workers, admin staff, and others – voted 94 per cent in favour of job action should their employer refuse to adequately invest in services and workers, sending a decisive message that they stand behind their bargaining team.

“We take these jobs because we want to do right by children and families. We provide supports that save lives, but for too long we’ve been doing this important and challenging work despite our agency, not because of it,” said Aubrey Gonsalves, CUPE 2316 President. “Families haven’t seen the cracks building because workers have done everything we can, putting the care of service users before our own mental health, our bodies, and our lives. They don’t see the burn out, the anxiety we take home, the stress that eats away at us as cases pile up. This vote is my coworkers saying, ‘enough is enough.’”

At the heart of this fight is the very definition of the care that CAST is mandated to provide. While the provincial government has talked of modernizing CAS across the province and senior leadership in Toronto has increased caseloads on workers, Gonsalves and his coworkers want to return to basics: giving case managers enough time to build relationships with children and families, to understand the family and community context, to provide meaningful counselling, and to see care through to the end.

Worker’s pleas to senior leadership to address their workload crisis have been ignored for years. The challenge has only become more acute in recent years which saw CAS agencies across the province become carers of last resort as community agencies shuttered during the pandemic. Adding insult to mounting frustration, CAST was recognized as one of the Greater Toronto Area’s top 2023 employers by MediaCorp Canada despite struggling through a staffing crisis that’s seen an exodus of workers from the agency, chased out by poor working conditions, a lack of support, and eroding wages.

“They won’t even acknowledge that we have a workload problem because to managers who sit behind desks think everything is ok so long as the numbers are moving in the right direction,” said Gonsalves. “But we’re the ones in the field, we’re the ones working with these children who’ve lived through violence and women who’ve survived abuse. Our workers protect and save lives, and support and strengthen families, but we need the time and resources to do it.”

The bargaining team is set to return to the table on May 30.