'Where's the accountability?' Families and First Nations call for full regulation of social workers

In B.C., only a selection of social workers are required to be registered. Those who work for the Ministry of Children and Family Development are not regulated. (Shutterstock/Rido - image credit)
In B.C., only a selection of social workers are required to be registered. Those who work for the Ministry of Children and Family Development are not regulated. (Shutterstock/Rido - image credit)

When Shannon Gorski decided to file a complaint against her mother's social worker a few years ago, she assumed that any proven transgressions would be made public by the B.C. College of Social Workers.

As she had hoped, the college's inquiry committee investigated Shelley Behr of Richmond and found a list of violations that included blurring professional and personal boundaries, creating a situation where Gorski's mother became dependent on her, and working outside of her areas of competence, according to a 2017 decision shared with CBC.

But while Behr signed an agreement with the college consenting to remedial actions, there would be no public record of the outcome. Gorski was dumbfounded.

"Where's the accountability?" she asked. "How are you protecting the public? When a person Googles their name, and it comes up, she's 'in good standing.' There's no record."

Behr has yet to respond to requests for comment.

What Gorski had discovered was a feature of B.C.'s unique system for regulating social workers, which requires that only a small selection of disciplinary measures be publicized — in fact, just two are posted on the college website, and both are more than a decade old.

That's not all. In B.C., only some social workers have to register with the college and comply with its standards and oversight.

Anyone employed as a social worker with the Ministry of Children and Family Development (MCFD) doing highly sensitive child welfare work, for example, is exempt from regulation.

But people like Gorski, along with Indigenous leaders and many social workers, are hoping that could soon change.

'You should be monitored'

After B.C.'s health minister introduced new legislation this month to reform the regulation of health professionals, there are growing calls to bring social workers under the same legal umbrella, with full regulation and a more transparent discipline process.

"If you're in a position of trust, and you are in a profession where your mandate is to look after vulnerable children and youth and working with families, you should be monitored, and you should be regulated," Cheryl Casimer, a member of the political executive for the First Nations Summit, told CBC.

Earlier this year, she signed on to a letter from the First Nations Leadership Council to MCFD Minister Mitzi Dean calling for MCFD to "urgently" fix the holes in the current regulatory scheme. The letter notes that the council has been asking for this since 2016.

Casimer points to the example of Robert Riley Saunders, who faked credentials to work as a social worker for MCFD and used his position to defraud the primarily Indigenous teens in his care over a period of 17 years.

"If he had to have been vetted by an oversight body of sorts, I'm pretty sure that they would have found out right in the beginning that he didn't even have real accreditation," Casimer said.

Facebook
Facebook

As it stands, social workers in B.C. are governed by the Social Workers Act under the authority of MCFD. Health professionals like doctors, nurses and psychologists currently fall under the Health Professions Act, administered by the Health Ministry.

Michael Crawford, president of the B.C. Association of Social Workers, said it's "ludicrous" for MCFD to be responsible for regulating the profession when its own social workers are exempt.

"We've had literally dozens of meetings with the various ministers of children and family development, their senior bureaucrats and managers — all aimed at removing the exemptions," Crawford said.

"It's been a frustrating process."

After all those unsuccessful meetings, Crawford said his organization has repeatedly concluded that social workers should be governed by the health ministry rather than MCFD.

Public consultation underway

As Shannon Gorski discovered, incomplete regulation isn't the only difference between the rules governing social workers and those covering people like doctors and nurses.

There's also a difference in the transparency required for complaint outcomes.

Gorski's complaint against Behr was settled through a consent resolution agreement, and the Social Workers Act doesn't require any of these agreements to be made public. Even when a hearing is held, and disciplinary actions are decided by a college committee, only some of those decisions must be published.

For the regulated health professions, on the other hand, the terms of consent agreements must be made public if they're deemed to concern "serious matters," and the outcome of any complaint that ends up in a disciplinary hearing will be published.

Under the newly tabled Health Professions and Occupations Act, that would be taken a step further, and all disciplinary measures would be public.

A new oversight body for health professionals is also expected to consider whether social workers should be regulated under this legislation.

In an emailed statement, an MCFD spokesperson said the ministry is "maintaining an open dialogue with the Ministry of Health on social work oversight" and pointed out that public consultation is now underway into oversight of social workers in B.C.

As for Gorski, she also sued Behr on behalf of her mother in a case that was settled out of court with a monetary payment and an apology to the family.

But Gorski is still frustrated about how her complaint to the college was resolved.

"It took a lot of courage on my part to do what I did. I'm still proud of myself that I did it. I'm discouraged with the fact that I haven't been able to really feel that I did much to effect change," Gorski said.