Excessive workloads are threatening the quality and effectiveness of child protection services in northern Ontario and leaving vulnerable children, youth and families at risk, say representatives of workers with the Children’s Aid Society of the District of Nipissing and Parry Sound.

Child welfare workers in the region are burning out under the stress of high caseloads. But unlike other children’s aid societies (CASs) in Ontario, Nipissing and Parry Sound CAS has no tools or mechanisms for regulating employees’ workload.

Frontline workers are frustrated by the refusal of their society’s directors to tackle the roots of the problem and focus on ways to improve CAS services in northern Ontario.

“Too much work for too few workers has a serious impact on the families we serve,” said Debbie Hill, president of Local 2049 of the Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE).

“It means we don’t have enough time to build relationships of trust with the young people in our care. We can’t carry out full, in-depth visits with families. And we worry constantly that someone will fall through the cracks and the result will be another child death.”

As part of contract negotiations with Nipissing and Parry Sound CAS, CUPE has sought to address the workplace problems that have a direct impact on workers and families, including workload. This issue has a knock-on effect in many other areas of concern to workers, including sick time, staff turnover, recruitment and retention, and the use of casual workers.

But Nipissing and Parry Sound CAS refuses to consider workload caps or other measures that would improve child protection in the north.

“To carry on with excessive caseloads is dangerous for the families we work with and for child protection workers too. We want our employer to work with us to help prevent a tragedy,” said Hill.

To avert a potential tragic occurrence and ensure the quality of services at Nipissing and Parry Sound CAS, the union is urging the society to implement the recommendation from the 2015 Auditor General’s report regarding caseloads in children’s aid societies: “Develop standard caseload benchmarks for child protection services against which both Children’s Aid Societies and the Ministry can periodically compare caseloads and ensure that Society caseloads are reasonable.”

To underline workers’ determination to tackle workload and other issues with Nipissing and Parry Sound CAS, CUPE will be in mediation with the society until December 23. After that, frontline workers will be in a legal strike or lockout position.

“We are eager to resolve workload and other issues in negotiations. But we are also determined to do all we can to make sure that children and families in the north get the services they deserve,” said Hill.