Which way for child protection?

Politics should have no place in child welfare decision-making, says Social Work Prof. Graham Riches

by Prof. Graham Riches
Social Work and Family Studies

Now that the highly politicized and, one might say, media-driven decision has been made to return the two foster children cared for by the Draayers to them, let us hope that the long-term best interests of the children are secure.

Also let us hope that never again will such a `custody' dispute be settled by the public authorities responsible for child welfare and protection in B.C. with such scant regard for the privacy rights of the children and foster parents and for the social work professional code of ethics which seeks to safeguard the confidentiality of service users.

The question is how much confidence the public can have in child protection policy-making based on crisis management and political `fix-it' solutions? These may work in the short term, but is not an acceptable way to develop policy. In light of the Ministry of Children and Families high child protection staff vacancy rate it is certain this would seem to be inevitable.

To restore public and professional confidence two issues need to be addressed. How to get the politics of Victoria out of child welfare decision-making? And how to provide and support sound professional practice?

Two possibilities, both foreshadowed in Judge Gove's report five years ago, suggest themselves.

The first is to ensure that child welfare and protection are conducted at arm's length from central government.

This is not to deny the provincial government's responsibility for overall policy and legislation, but it is to make the case that the administration and practice of child welfare would be better conducted by duly constituted regional or community controlled boards, or children's aid societies as in Ontario, and their professional staff.

These would be more responsive to community needs and would be able to develop the preventive child welfare and health services which are much needed.

The second is to ensure the development of sound and accountable professional practice and decision-making.

This requires the support by government for a strong professional social work culture at all levels within the Ministry, as currently constituted. This would go a long way to ensuring the retention of professional social workers and provide internal and external accountability.

In other professions such as teaching, medicine, the law and nursing, such expectations of government would go without saying.

Recruitment and retention of qualified social workers are imperative.

To be fair, the Ministry is trying to do something about recruitment. However the Ministry's child protection recruitment policy is not restricted to qualified social workers and is at odds with Judge Gove's recommendation that Ministry social workers who provide direct services to children and their families should, at minimum, be required to have a Bachelor of Social Work degree as a basic qualification with a Master of Social Work being preferred.

Why has this recommendation not been fully supported?

The Ministry has also commissioned a report on the regulation of social service professions including social work.

This is a long overdue step in the right direction if the public interest is to be protected and child welfare and protection is to be informed by professional knowledge and expertise and not by continual political and bureaucratic scuffling.

Yet, Judge Gove's recommendation for a professional college for social workers still awaits legislative mandate.

Unfortunately, it would seem that unless there is a long-term commitment to building a strong and supportive professional social work culture, whatever government is in power, the political misfortunes of child protection in B.C. are likely to continue.

As the public is all too well aware, health and education require provincial resources but so, too, do the province's vulnerable children. The choice is the cul-de-sac of the past or the path of the future. Graham Riches is the director of the School of Social Work and Family Studies.

Reading List

Gove Report executive summary

The B.C. Ministry of Children and Families

Do you have an opinion on a topic of interest to the campus community and beyond? UBC Reports welcomes the submission of letters and opinion pieces. Call Public Affairs at (604) UBC-INFO or e-mail