Portia Larlee (November 14th, 2016). The Georgia Straight. Retrieved from: http://www.straight.com/news/827646/child-protection-bc-stop-policing-first-nations-families-and-build-community-support
After one-and-a-half years, I left my job as a child-protection social worker in northern British Columbia at the province’s Ministry of Children and Family Development.
I left an organization in the midst of both a staffing and an existential crisis.
The two crises are connected. In my understaffed office, we did not have time to support families in a meaningful way. Instead, we policed them. I arrived on strangers’ doorsteps, entered their homes (at times without consent), pointed out what parents were doing wrong, and tried to come up with what often felt like hollow “band-aid” solutions.
From a parent’s perspective, meeting with child-protection workers has been described as similar to being measured against a checklist, with the correct answers only available to the social worker. This bombardment of questions included: “Do you drink alcohol?” and “How do you handle disagreements in your family?”
I rarely had time to build trust with families before these meetings, and they were often understandably hesitant, confused, or angry. I felt pressured to use parents’ anger against them. This anger and frustration was another check mark on the checklist, one of the reasons they were a potential risk to their children.
Like most child-protection social workers in Canada, I am a white woman. So are most of my former coworkers. The families I worked with during my time at MCFD were Indigenous, save for about three who were white.
University of Victoria professor of social work Susan Strega notes that poverty and race make for a “perfect child-welfare storm”. She explains that if you have children while being poor or as a person of colour, the state will likely insert itself in your life.
I expected this systemic racism. Naively, I didn’t expect to be blocked when trying to address it.
Shortly after I arrived in Fort St. James, three of my fellow social workers left their positions, leaving four of us behind. Understaffing meant delays in child placement. There were not enough of us to support families and build relationships. Until my exit interview, I never heard my manager address understaffing and what it meant for us.
When he did acknowledge understaffing, he outlined a vision for the work that was unfamiliar to me. “Child-protection work” is distinct from “social work”, he said, and when child-protection workers provide supportive services, they tend to stray from MCFD’s mandate.
This was the first I had heard of this. If child protection was being reduced to policing, I had assumed it was because of forces beyond the ministry’s control. I never thought it might be intentional.
I had eight supervisors during the year-and-a-half I was in my position. Some were cognizant of the ongoing systemic oppression and racism faced by Indigenous families. Whenever possible, they placed children with family rather than in foster homes. They avoided removing children through gathering community members to come up with creative ways to support a family. They liaised with the First Nations bands and wielded the violent power of state intervention in families with caution and understanding, which is especially important in a context of historical and ongoing mass removal of Indigenous children.
Those supervisors were acting as social workers. I had other supervisors who acted more like cops. One told me I needed to be “more confrontational” in my work with families and blamed Indigenous communities and families for their own poverty and disenfranchisement. They called for homes to be searched, and for mandatory drug testing.
So which is it? Are child-protection social workers meant to support families or police them? The answer to this question needs to be made clear to workers and families alike.
It seems obvious to me that child-welfare structures will be sustainable and effective if they are localized and built by and for the community. Communities need the space, resources, and support to rebuild their own mechanisms for ensuring safety. For some Indigenous communities in B.C. this has meant a return to tradition.
In the meantime, while outsiders such as myself continue to fill these roles, there needs to be a more holistic and family-focussed approach to child welfare. Only then will we be able to correct the stark overrepresentation of Indigenous children in the mainstream child-welfare system.
Therein lies the bind: should we bother focusing on staffing a system in crisis? Or should we shift our attention, instead, to building new community-based organizations to support families?
Either way, management should stop leaving frontline workers in the dark. I say do this soon, before there are none left.