In an unprecedented interview that unveiled working conditions in New Brunswick child welfare services, Jacqueline McKnight, 31, described how the work made her sick with fear and despair.
“I saw human suffering beyond imagination,” said McKnight, who went on leave in February, three years after starting a vocation she saw as a vocation.
“In terms of injuries, mistreatment, human behavior… we’ve seen it all, we have felt it all. We have touched it all. And those things don’t leave you when you point.”
McKnight said she constantly fears for the health and safety of the children under her care as there are almost always too many cases to deal with.
She also feared for her own safety, as parents who resented her involvement sometimes lashed out at her.
“I walk into people’s lives on their worst days, so I understand why they get mad,” she said. “I understand why they are angry and come after us.”
Trial by Fire
McKnight went to work for the Department of Social Development in the western part of the province in January 2018, the same month she obtained a bachelor’s degree in social work from St. Thomas University.
On her seventh day at work, she had to remove two very young siblings from their home due to extreme neglect. She then had to testify in court.
“It was the crash course of all crash courses,” she said.
After about six months of work and still not fully trained on systems like the database, McKnight was given more responsibility, including consulting with colleagues on how to handle high-risk situations.
She said the files were incredibly complex and “stacked up quickly.”
“I felt it. I felt the tightening. I felt like I had to be in two places at once.”
McKnight said if his region had been fully staffed it would have meant two teams of six social workers with a supervisor for each team – for a total of around 14 people.
But she said the office sometimes worked on half of that, due to vacancies, staff shortages, staff burnout and people on burnout leave.
It was impossible to ask another social worker for help as everyone was constantly overwhelmed.
“You would just create more of a burden on someone else.”
McKnight said choosing which family to prioritize was an ongoing moral dilemma as so many cases appeared urgent.
“Are you going to the family that is already documented, where you know things are bad? Or are you going to the family that you haven’t laid eyes on yet but that sounds really bad.”
There was also an inherent agony when deciding whether to leave a child in a home or place him in foster care.
Many deficient situations are not yet serious enough to justify removing a child from a parent.
McKnight would feel anxious to leave the children in homes devoid of food, clothing, and other necessities, and would sometimes make emergency purchases with her own money.
She was also ruminating on any damage that could occur when a child had to be removed.
“Taking a child out of their family? Nobody wants to do that,” she said. “These are the worst days of our job – the absolute worst days. The literature is clear on the impact this can have on a child, what it means for their development, especially when they are very young.
“And there are times when you wake up at 3 am and wonder, ‘Did I make the right decision? Did I do what was actually best for this child?’
McKnight said the scariest part of her job was going to a house for the first time to investigate a complaint involving guns or drugs.
“We’re looking at extreme amounts of drug activity, a real focus on methamphetamine, organized crime, and serious addiction and mental health issues.”
Often, she said, she had to go alone because the other social workers were too busy and the police were also too busy.
It would take a tremendous amount of psychological energy just to have the courage to walk to the door.
“You are literally walking into the complete and utter unknown,” McKnight said, recalling how his heart and his mind were going to race.
“Are they going to say, ‘Get out of my property.’ Will they hit me in the face? Will they show me the gun they loaded near the door? “
McKnight said she was pushed, slapped, spat on and chased by dogs. She was intimidated and threatened.
“People were like, ‘I know where you live’ How do you deal with this? Are they bluffing, or aren’t they bluffing?”
McKnight is so afraid of meeting families outside of work that she has stopped leaving her home.
“I regularly had panic attacks in public places such as grocery stores, Walmart or the park. I couldn’t stand seeing a reminder of work outside of work. There was something wrong with me. . “
Eventually McKnight put her house up for sale, and when she went on sick leave she moved to another part of the province. She is still employed by Social Development.
Employment wreaks havoc on children of social workers
McKnight does not have children herself, but said she has witnessed the impact of work on the families of her colleagues and it is not healthy.
Social workers who are parents are running out of time with their own children because they are so concerned with the children’s urgent needs on their files, she said.
They miss sports, concerts, dates and their own children’s activities because their jobs are so unpredictable.
Social workers may be needed in the hospital, while waiting for a doctor to inspect a child’s injuries. They may be delayed while waiting for the police to arrive to provide assistance or conduct a forensic interview.
“Or it could be negotiating with a family about what we need to see happen before we can leave. [the premises] and feel confident the child is safe, ”McKnight said. “Or it could be time spent trying to find a foster family.
“You can’t get out of those situations. It takes as long as it takes. If it takes 24 hours, you’re working 24 hours. If it takes until 4 in the morning, you’re there and it doesn’t. there is no compromise. Nobody comes to relieve you. you. “
“They have to choose and the reality of the people I know is that they choose the children they work with. They don’t choose their own families, and their own families suffer.”
In addition to her fear of leaving home, McKnight said she developed an eating disorder and compassion fatigue. She even thought about suicide.
“The world of my colleagues is so deeply rooted in the negative, the sadness, the hopelessness. We don’t see healthy, well-adjusted and cared children because we don’t need them.”
McKnight felt she was losing her ability to connect with families and build rapport.
“I was having a hard time finding empathy and it scared me. You can’t do this job without empathy.
Eventually, she was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder. In her successful application to WorkSafeNB, her injury is described as an injury to the “nervous system, p. ex. nervous shock, nervous breakdown ”.
McKnight was working for social development when consultant George Savory was hired to conduct a review of the child welfare system.
Its report, released in November 2018, stated that “the workload / workload dilemma is a very pressing issue for New Brunswick staff. . “
McKnight said the report raised hopes for new hires, but before she went on leave this year her office was grappling with some of the worst staffing shortages she had seen. She said the office was half empty.
Workers suffer “shell shock”
As a social worker in the public sector, McKnight belongs to CUPE Local 1418, which has been without a contract since August 2017.
Because the local is on strike, McKnight got permission from union leaders to talk about his working conditions.
Shawna Morton, the president of the local, said they had never been so bad.
“In the protection arena, we’ve seen a revolving door like crazy,” Morton said. “The recruitment and retention issues are absolutely the most horrendous I have ever seen.”
Guidance is available to child protection workers through their employee assistance program, but Morton said staff may not have the time or energy to ask for help. help – if he can even recognize that he needs it.
“People are so shocked that they don’t even realize what’s happening to them,” she said.
McKnight said the confidentiality of child protection records and the silence of child protection workers have made it easier for society to argue that serious child abuse and neglect is not as prevalent as it is. ‘they are.
By letting the system be so ignored and underfunded, she said, society is complicit in what happens to children.
McKnight is making progress in her recovery, she said, but isn’t sure if she’ll ever be well enough to do the job again.