Workloads at Children and Family Services delaying assessment of vulnerable kids, say staff

Workers with Children and Family Services said they fear vulnerable children are being put at risk by case backlogs and staff shortages. (Canva - image credit)
Workers with Children and Family Services said they fear vulnerable children are being put at risk by case backlogs and staff shortages. (Canva - image credit)

Nearly half of Calgary front-line staff who assess whether children are unsafe with their caregivers have been dealing with caseloads exceeding benchmarks set under the Ministry of Children and Family Services, CBC News has learned.

Similar data shared with CBC News from February suggests the situation in Edmonton is more strained, with almost two-thirds of child intervention practitioners there assigned cases above those same provincial benchmarks.

In discussing the conditions, several child intervention practitioners said they fear vulnerable children are being put at risk by case backlogs and staff shortages.

They said child assessments that used to begin a couple of weeks after receiving a public report — such as from a relative, teacher or doctor — are now taking a couple of months to get to.

"I've had different positions within the department and I've never seen it this bad," said one employee, who asked not to be identified out of concern for their job.

"We are leaving kids in horrible situations," said another worker. "We've done so much damage."

The ministry said it's working to address workforce challenges, and has introduced policies to support reduced workloads for employees, including a focus on recruiting.

In an e-mailed statement, Matthew Cassie, a spokesperson for Children and Family Services (CFS), disputed the figures obtained by the CBC. Cassie said 60 per cent of child intervention practitioners across Alberta have caseloads at or under provincial benchmarks — leaving 40 per cent working above those levels.

"If a report of a child needing intervention services requires immediate attention, we will take all necessary steps to keep the child safe," said Cassie.

"The health, safety and well-being of children and youth is the government's top priority."

Employees above workload benchmarks 

Child intervention practitioners are employed by CFS to assess and investigate reports of children in vulnerable and potentially dangerous situations.

They create safety plans to either allow children to remain with appointed guardians or be taken into government care.

An internal email sent by the assistant deputy minister of child intervention to all CFS employees on Sept. 27, 2023, obtained by CBC News, states that child intervention practitioners should not have more than 13 files assigned to them at any given time.

But caseload data shows many child intervention practitioners have assignments in the high teens or low 20s.

As of mid-February, 63 of 154 child intervention practitioners in the Calgary region had over 13 files assigned to them. In the Edmonton region, 127 out of 219 practitioners had over 13 files assigned. One employee in Edmonton had 28 cases. The figures do not include child intervention practitioners who work in centralized intake or on specialized teams and do not do assessments.

"People are drowning … we just don't have the time. You know, I just feel bad for these [children]," said one CFS employee.

"In this situation, we aren't able to do the preventative work that is required to keep children safe in their homes with their guardians," said another. "Instead, we are letting things fester and get worse before we get to it."

But the province said it continues to monitor key targets to ensure children and youth are receiving services in accordance with provincial legislation.

Cassie, the CFS spokesperson, added that individual caseloads and the complexity of those cases are evaluated on an ongoing basis, and that "adjustments are made as needed."

"Policies are in place to ensure the intake process is completed in a timely way, and this is occurring in practice," said Cassie.

"Employees who are concerned about their caseload are encouraged to reach out to their supervisor."

But Sandra Azocar, vice-president of the Alberta Union of Provincial Employees (AUPE), said the government's assertion that 60 per cent of workers are under caseload benchmarks is misleading.

"According to feedback from our members, these caseloads are likely much higher because of the way cases are shifted temporarily onto supervisors.… Even if [it] were true, the average caseload is not a fair comparison to the real caseloads we see."

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Cassie also noted that staff are required to have monthly contact with each child or youth in care, and that face-to-face contact alone with each child is required at least once in a 90-day period.

According to internal data obtained by the CBC, as of mid-February there were 561 counts of overdue face-to-face contact with children across all provincial zones, along with 283 counts of overdue monthly contact with children aged six years and under. There were 376 counts of overdue monthly contact with children and youth aged 7-17.

Requests to speak to the assistant deputy minister and the minister of Children and Family Services, Searle Turton, were declined.

No timeline to meet with child

Several CFS employees who spoke to the CBC and asked not to be named over concern for their jobs said the backlog in cases means reports of children in vulnerable situations are not being assessed in a timely manner.

One employee, whom CBC News is calling Jesse, said they're worried a child could get hurt.

Jesse said that even as recently as last year that it would take one or two weeks for a child intervention practitioner to make contact with a child deemed to be at risk and needing further assessment.

"But we have gotten into a situation where things have been backlogged so badly that we are getting reports that are what I would consider relatively serious in nature, and where children and families are waiting four or five months before someone first connects with them … which I've never personally seen in my entire career, a wait that long."

Employees interviewed this year told CBC there is no standardized response time to meet with a child once an assessment has begun.

A manual published last April outlining policies and procedures for CFS casework staff said an assessment must be undertaken within 10 business days of a case file being assigned. But an updated manual from October removed such language and no alternative timeline was provided.

People are drowning … we just don't have the time. You know, I just feel bad for these [children]. - CFS employee

Cassie, with the ministry, said in an e-mail that the 10-day timeline was removed to "clarify expectations and reduce confusion."

In addition to already high caseloads, employees say numbers don't reflect what CFS calls "case intensity ratings," meaning there's no way to determine or track the complexity of the files individual workers are assigned.

And if a worker's load is considered to have a high average case intensity rating, they should actually be working at a lower benchmark, one CFS worker said.

Azocar, with AUPE, said the organization has noticed an increase in the number of senior CFS staff going on leave in an attempt to cope with the stress of managing high caseloads and the pressure to move through cases as quickly as possible to get through the backlog.

"This is a job that is incredibly hard to do. And if that work keeps on piling up and you're not able to make sure that you go home feeling that the child that you're working with will be safe for the night, the stress that that causes is huge," said Azocar.

According to data provided by AUPE, over 12 per cent of child intervention practitioners in Calgary are on long-term disability or stress leave.

Azocar said AUPE has encountered many roadblocks with the minister's office in attempts to discuss the issue of staff shortages and high caseloads.

"I wouldn't qualify the relationship as one that is conducive to any impactful change at this moment … we get a lot of verbiage back from the employer saying 'if you don't like the job, there's the door' type of responses [when] our members bring issues up," said Azocar.

"Unfortunately, [those] who suffer are the children that we deal with. Because if they're left in a situation that is life and death, then kids will die … and that's the hard reality of what we're talking about."

To address staff shortages, Cassie said the ministry continues to fill open positions as quickly as possible. He added that more than 450 child intervention practitioners were hired in 2022 and 2023.