Social workers fear for their safety in “no-go zones”: B.C. union
By Canadian Occupational Health & Safety News
A report from the B.C. Government and Service Employees’ Union (BCGEU) has highlighted a continuing problem in the province’s social-worker sector, claiming that safety issues have resulted in “no-go zones” throughout the province that Aboriginal child, youth and family workers avoid.
Published on Oct. 8, Closing the Circle: a case for reinvesting in Aboriginal child, youth and family services in British Columbia focused on issues concerning the Aboriginal child-welfare system in B.C. One section of the 31-page report, titled “Health and Safety”, identified occupational risks that social workers face when visiting certain communities, usually in isolated areas or in dodgy inner-city neighbourhoods like the east side of Vancouver.
“There are remote areas of the province where the government isn’t particularly welcome, and social workers have experienced significant health and safety threats,” Doug Kinna, vice president of BCGEU’s social-information and health component, told COHSN. “They’re afraid to go into these areas without police protection.”
The report listed four distinct oh&s issues that Aboriginal-community social workers with the Ministry of Children and Family Development (MCFD) have: exposure to violence from high-risk clients without sufficient protocol or backup; travel to isolated areas with inadequate communication; risks commonly associated with lone work; and risks associated with small communities where clients and workers may know each other.
Kinna explained that Aboriginal residents of these areas are often suspicious and distrustful of government employees and assume that the workers are coming to take their children away. “There are huge poverty issues there,” he added. “Life has kicked them really hard, and they’re pretty desperate.”
MCFD did not respond to COHSN’s request for comment before press time. But Stephanie Cadieux, the B.C. Minister of Children and Family Development, issued a general press statement about the report following its release.
“I look forward to speaking with the union about this report and their observations,” said Cadieux on Oct. 8. “We will take the time we need as a ministry to review their recommendations from Closing the Circle in the context of the other work currently underway.”
Kinna criticized the Ministry’s past suggestions for safety solutions as ineffective.
“MCFD insists there’s no such thing as a no-go zone. But they’re not properly addressing the issue; they’re saying we should keep people safe by cell phones and sat phones in remote areas,” he noted. “A cell phone or sat phone doesn’t really do any good if you’re beat up and you can’t make the call.”
Kinna cited a past incident in Campbell River, where a visiting social worker had been beaten by a client; fortunately, the worker managed to dial 9-1-1 in time. “He might have been injured more than he was; he wouldn’t have been able to make the call.
“They talk about safety of children. Well, having a dead social worker really doesn’t keep kids safe.”
The Ministry has also advised social workers to attend calls in pairs – a solution that would work if it weren’t for severe understaffing, Kinna added. An ideal situation, he suggested, would be one worker at the door and a backup waiting by the sidewalk.
No-go zones had already been deemed a problem in Lost in the Shadows: How a lack of help meant a loss of hope for one First Nations girl, a previous report from Mary Ellen Turpel-Lafond, the B.C. Representative for Children and Youth. This report examined how a deeply flawed child-protection system had contributed to the suicide of a 14-year-old.
“They need to work out some protocols in remote areas in the province, to ensure that social workers are safe,” said Kinna. “They need to work with the dads and let them know that they’re there about the safety of the children.