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Sonia Furstenau column: MCFD needs overhaul of requirements for social workers

BCASW advocating for mandatory registration for social workers with B.C. College of Social Workers.

Last week we learned that approximately $15 million in tax revenue will be paid in compensation to 102 children and youth who were traumatized while in the care of a social worker who breached practice standards and ethics while under the authority of the B.C. government.

The Kelowna-based social worker, Robert Riley Saunders, lied about his credentials and was hired without proper vetting by the Ministry of Children and Family Development (MCFD). He is the subject of a class-action lawsuit claiming that he stole money from children in his care. He has fled and has not stood to face his charges — both human and legal.

Currently, oversight of the professional qualifications and actions of social workers in child protection sits under the authority of MCFD. According to the BC Association for Social Workers (BCASW), this tragedy could have been avoided if oversight for social workers working in child protection and child-and-youth services was delegated to an outside authority. BCASW is advocating for mandatory registration for all social workers with the B.C. College of Social Workers.

BCASW President Michael Crawford said in a press release, “Without registration [in the College], the public has no assurance that a social worker has committed to practice according to standards of practice established by the profession and to adhere to a strict code of ethics.”

Kelowna’s online news service Castanet followed up this story with a reader poll. The question: Should MCFD social workers be required to register with a regulatory college? Of the 4,741 respondents, 144 said no; 181 were unsure; 4,416 or 93 per cent voted yes.

The Child, Family, and Community Service Act itself is for the most part well-written. Many experts over many years have poured time and energy into refining the Act to be inclusive and considerate of all types of child protection cases. There is no such thing as perfect legislation, so there are improvements that can be made to the Act, but the Act is not the problem; it’s the application of it, which disproportionately impacts Indigenous children and families. Of the 102 children in Saunders’s care, 85 of them are Indigenous.

The vulnerability of the children and families involved in child protection cases warrants a high degree of transparency and accountability. As long as MCFD is accountable for its own staff, oversight is questionable. The fox is guarding the henhouse.

We have seen the impacts of this first hand in my constituency office. We have helped parents submit complaints about social workers to MCFD, a process that is time consuming, demeaning, and — in each case — fruitless. MCFD has demonstrated a sub-standard practice of managing complaints about social workers. It is not surprising that Mr. Saunders was able to take these tragic actions for so many years without consequence.

In British Columbia, there are 26 regulated health professions, of which 25 are governed by 20 regulatory colleges under the Health Professions Act. Social workers who work in a hospital setting are required to register with the BC College of Social Workers. Social workers who work for MCFD have been explicitly exempt from this requirement. Given the complexity and consequence in working with children and families in need of protection and support, it is irresponsible that the province chooses to not require its workers to be governed by a delegated authority whose sole mandate is to serve and protect the public.

Sadly, the reputation of this government remains: it is the worst parent in all of British Columbia. We owe it to those 102 children to make substantive changes to the culture and practice so this story doesn’t need to be told again.

Sonia Furstenau is the MLA for the Cowichan Valley.