Former Sahtu social worker recalls drowning in workload after position left vacant

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When former child protection worker Caroline Yukon resigned from her job in the Sahtu after 22 years, the workplace stress within the NWT child protection system had become too much to bear.

Yukon was left as the only social worker in her home community of Deline after a second position under the Department of Health and Social Services was left vacant. 

She resigned in 2014, the same year the Auditor General of Canada issued a damning report that found the department’s child and family services division was failing children in the territory.

Caroline Yukon is a child protection worker who resigned after 22 years of service in 2014. She is calling on the territorial government to improve its social work services after a damning report last year found the Department of Health and Social Services was failing children yet again after a similar audit in 2014. photo courtesy of Caroline Yukon
Caroline Yukon is a child protection worker who resigned after 22 years of service in 2014. She is calling on the territorial government to improve its social work services after a damning report last year found the Department of Health and Social Services was failing children yet again after a similar audit in 2014. photo courtesy of Caroline Yukon

Yukon spoke to News/North following another report last fall that found the situation in many cases had become even worse.

The caseload never slowed, said Yukon, and she frequently worked overtime to manage burdensome administration and paperwork with little managerial support.

“I never did get caught up. I really tried my best. My caseload was ever heavy,” she said.

Yukon alleges she and her colleagues, some of them also Indigenous women, were denied the leave they needed to recoup from a difficult job.

“We did everything ourselves because of a lack of resources. I ended up getting sick,” she said.

Asked whether the department denied leave to workers in the Sahtu as a result of understaffing, spokesperson Damien Healy stated by email that the department could not comment on staffing matters.

Yukon further alleges when she eventually took sick leave from her job in Deline, her position designation was changed from Community Social Services Worker level 3 to Community Social Services Worker level 4 which had higher qualifications.

When Yukon returned to work, she had little choice but to accept the Community Social Services Worker level 3 position in Tulita, away from her family.

Yukon spent her own money travelling between Deline and Tulita to stay connected.

“To this day I still suffer from it. It’s never going to go away,” she said.

The health department cannot speak to personnel matters but job descriptions are permitted to change, said Healy.

After burning out in 2014, Yukon said she pursued additional education at the First Nations University of Canada, earning a Bachelor of Indigenous Social Work.

New staffing demands in February budget season, says official

The Health and Social Services department is expected to demand more resources for staffing next month as MLAs sit to deliberate the 2019-20 budget.

The department cannot reveal how many positions it will advocate for until budget time, Bruce Cooper, deputy minister of Health and Social Services told News/North following a Dec. 12 committee meeting.

Child protection workers surveyed are spending roughly 25 hours per week on child protection, he said.

Speaking with children and doing the frontline work is important but can be routinely sidelined by administrative burdens and investigations, said Yukon.

Investigations must start within 24 hours of a reported concern and complaint. As one of the only social workers in the region, Yukon would be forced to set aside other protection work to complete those investigations.

Yukon said she dealt with child protection matters, suicides, elder abuse, adult intake and referrals to shelter homes on a regular basis. As a social worker, Yukon liaised with RCMP, justice departments and schools while conducting foster home studies and visits with elders.

“I did all of that and what I experienced as a social worker was a lack of resources,” she said.

Build Indigenous culture into service and staffing

Understanding a family’s situation and building relationships takes time and cultural competence, she said, adding that tailoring care to Indigenous peoples and staffing each community with at least one worker from the communities will improve outcomes.

“There is not enough cross-cultural training for non-Indigenous social workers,” she said.

As of Oct. 24, the health department had 69 people with statutory appointments under the Child Family Services Act. Fifty-eight of them are regional managers, supervisors, and frontline staff. Of this group, 31 per cent are Indigenous, stated Healy.

As part of child protection statutory training, staff complete cultural awareness training modules. They are also required to meet with elders and traditional knowledge holders to learn about the indigenous background of the region they work in, including how traditional practices and knowledge can help inform the delivery of services, said Healy.

“When the staff attend the classroom based training in Yellowknife they are provided with a guest speaker who shares personal and experiential knowledge of child welfare services and explores impacts on culture and identity,” he said.

Tailoring care to community needs

The promise of a continued social work program at Aurora College is vital to bringing more workers from the communities into the fold, said Yukon.

The social work diploma program was scrapped in 2017 but there is hope a revamped program may arrive with a new polytechnic university – whenever that comes.

Before spending two decades as a child protection worker, Yukon obtained her social work diploma at the Thebacha campus in Fort Smith.

“It was the Indigenous social workers that stayed longer than the non-indigenous social workers. I want local people to hold positions in their communities because they speak the language, they know the culture. They can do good work with the people and they’re not going to leave their positions. They’re going to stay because it’s their home community,” she said.

Yukon is also advocating for better options for parents to access extended treatment and healing programs on the land for longer than 28 days.

“Our own people should be trained to get specialized in that field and they should be the ones going out on the land with the families to help them heal. People have to have community support for the healing otherwise it’s not going to work,” she said.

Better child care options and more culturally relevant counselling supports would also reduce the number of children being placed in care, she said.

Yukon urged improved supports for parents signing on to plan-of-care agreements, who do not always have access to lawyers, she said.

Voluntary service agreements are in place to help families through community counselling before they attend treatment and during aftercare, said Damien Healy. Information on plan of care agreements, permanent custody and guardianship is online and regional staff are encouraged to educate community members on available services, he said.

More management support

The department is planning additional training for management, in response to audit findings that assistant directors “did not have qualifications or experience in child and family services” and had “insufficient preparation” to fulfill their key responsibilities, said assistant auditor general Terry DeJong at the Dec. 12 committee meeting.

Frontline workers need ample supports from management, which Yukon said were rarely in the communities. In 22 years, Yukon had 10 supervisors, she said.

“We do lose people and we will continue to lose people,” said Yukon. “I want to see the counsellors as our own people trained in a specialized field and to work with our families.”

“We need more resources and on the land healing will help, but the community and social services have to support each other. They can’t do it alone,” she said.

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