The province's child protection watchdog has been sharply critical of the ministry of children and family development and its compliance with the Hughes Review's recommendations. But can Mary Ellen Turpel-Lafond count on social service agencies to publicly validate those criticisms? Perhaps not. An internal survey conducted by the Federation of Child and Family Services of British Columbia found its members were generally satisfied with the group's direction. But one survey respondent complained about a lack of advocacy on behalf of the federation, noting "the voice of the fed is increasingly like the chamber of commerce for social service agencies - self interested." In fact, just 25 percent of respondents highlighted advocacy as a priority for the federation. By comparison, 57 percent highlighted operational sustainability and 48 percent highlighted wages and benefits equity.
Asked about the matter, federation executive director Jennifer Charlesworth said, "That was the only comment we got like that" among the 91 respondents. "And there were lots of others that said that people appreciated the new wave of advocacy that we were doing - which was, instead of beating people with a stick, drawing the lines in the sand very clearly and working with people as much as possible but making it clear there would be points at which we would stand up and speak out in order to do the right thing."
Continued Ms. Charlesworth, "We've been really clear about where the lines in the sand are. And we've been really clear recently where some have been crossed over. And we're preparing to say, 'Okay, so the lines have been crossed. Now what. Where are we going to take this? How are we going to do it?' And picking our issues strategically so we can actually affect some change rather than some reaction behind closed doors."
The following is complete copy of the aforementioned survey.
Federation of Child and Family Services
Overview of 2008 Results
In early 2008, the Federation of Child and Family Services undertook a survey of all of its 100 full member agencies. The return rate on the survey was a remarkable 91%. What the survey clearly exposes, is the enormous array of services and supports provided to the citizens of British Columbia through these community-based social services agencies, what stresses they are under as they cope with a host of pressures, and the remarkable commitment and resiliency of the sector in finding ways to cope and continue to extend services. Additionally, the survey exposes weaknesses in the sector such as the current funding model and the significant challenges in finding and retaining qualified staff. Overall, the survey supports the role that the Federation plays in representing the sector and providing added value to the members.
PART ONE: AGENCY SERVICES
Perhaps the most surprising finding about the services provided by member agencies is just how broad the scope of programming is. As expected, many agencies provide services such as parenting supports (76%), family support services (74%), youth justice (59%), youth services (58%), community capacity building (57%) women's services (23%) community living services (29%) addiction services (children and youth) (29%), mental health services (children and youth) (29%), employment services (27%) and housing/ housing supports (26%). Additionally, a host of other programs are also provided in varying degrees to children, adults and families such as FASD and autism services, food banks and thrift stores, Social/recreation programs, adult mental health, respite, adoption support, services to sexually exploited youth, crisis lines, Christmas hampers, meals on wheels, elder abuse, food security, transportation, services to new immigrants, mentoring programs, and child care resource and referral. The list goes on.
What this demonstrates is that although most agencies have a significant child and family focus, the "˜family' is considered in a much broader context by many agencies, so that a support service to senior citizens, for example, is not at odds with other supports to families and may, in fact contribute to a more holistic approach to the needs of a particular family. In total, member agencies served 312,131 persons in 2007.
Currently, approximately 60% of agencies are accredited and 39% are unionized. Interestingly, a number of agencies manage a complex labour relations environment with some staff unionized in one or two different unions while having other staff outside the union.
PART TWO: AGENCY FUNDING
In the survey, 79 agencies reported being funded a total of $236,245,380. Of this amount, 54% was funded through MCFD. Other key funders included, the Federal Government, Community Living BC, health authorities, United Way, municipalities, BC Housing, fundraising and other ministries such as the Ministry of Community Services. The extensive variety of programs offered by multi-service agencies via different funders may be partly indicative of a desire to decrease financial vulnerability by spreading the risk to several different funders.
"We are always chasing money to keep a float which causes staff to feel uncertain about future programming."
When asked about financial challenges, most agencies reported issues with sustainability related to operational and administrative costs. Many of these are the same issues raised through the survey on this issue in 2007. The problems have emerged because government contracts have not addressed inflationary costs for many years, leaving agencies to try to manage these increases year to year through administrative cuts, fund-raising and changes to programs. Increases in audit fees, information technology, accreditation, lease costs, food costs, and now, importantly, energy costs, including the price of gas, are so significant that some agencies are facing program cutbacks and some suggest that agency viability may be in question.
"Bottom line would be closure, staff burnout from very little or no time off, increased sick leave from employees, higher benefit costs."
"Worst case scenario would be to fold."
The issues are exacerbated in rural communities where gas increases are making it very difficult to continue to provide services requiring extensive travel.
"Rural areas are underfunded, maintenance of building are the same as in larger communities, wages, merc's and operation expenses are the same as in larger communities. The rural formula does not work!"
High staff turnover, costs related to recruitment and lack of funding for training or other extras to retain staff are also constant pressures. A number of agencies anticipate the loss of Federal CAPC (ECD) funding and the possible loss of employment program funding as these programs are devolved to the provinces. As well, there is some trepidation that funding will be redirected away from their agencies to Aboriginal agencies, further compromising their capacity to deliver services. Some agencies have noted that they may have to stop running some programs altogether due to funding limitations.
"We are spending more than budgets allow - we are examining costs associated with residential services and may have to withdraw from providing some of these services."
"I believe we will evolve into truly charitable organizations with only a few Mother Theresa's working with the increasing number of homeless, hungry and mentally ill."
Agencies discussed many of the strategies they have pursued in order to continue to provide services in the face of severe budget problems. Most involve cutting back on administrative costs, but also in important areas like training. Many have had to lay off staff and curtail programs. A number have indicated establishing more vigorous fundraising programs.
PART THREE: STAFF & VOLUNTEERS
The 73 agencies that completed the staffing section of the survey employ 2,626 full time employees, 1,206 part time employees and 982 active casual employees. These cross the full range of social service and administrative jobs including child and youth care workers, social workers, early childhood educators, youth justice workers, counsellors, therapists, nurses, educational assistants and various managers and administrators. If we extrapolate from these responses we can estimate that 6600 staff are employed by federation full member agencies.
In addition, 7,562 volunteers contributed 303,337 hours of work for the 73 reporting agencies. It is estimated that all Federation member agencies benefit from the talents of over 10,300 volunteers and over 410,000 volunteer hours. These volunteers contribute across the whole spectrum of agency activity from the boardroom to maintenance, advocacy to peer counselling. Although some agencies indicate that they don't have the capacity to manage a proper volunteer program, it's hard to imagine how most of these agencies would continue to operate without dedicated volunteers contributing millions of dollars worth of their time and energy.
Fifty-one percent of agencies responded that it is getting harder to retain staff, 64% reported that it is now more challenging to recruit staff than in the past, and 81% anticipate this to be a big issue in the future. Agencies report fewer qualified applicants applying for positions which do not offer competitive wages.
"Way fewer applicants, then when you go through them, you hope that at least one of them have at least some of the qualifications you were advertising for."
Retention is becoming more and more difficult as other community based operations have much higher wage grids. This story was repeated over and over.
"Our contract values are so low we can not compete with salaries paid by Interior Health and MCFD for identical work. We have has 2 staff recruited by Interior Health and one by the Government of Alberta. Additionally people who want to work at the agency for lifestyle reasons have had to decline because they can not afford to live on the wages we can offer."
"More difficult [to] retain counsellors in the addictions programs as Northern Health will hire them for about $10.00 more with a pension."
Smaller, isolated communities report a particularly difficult time attracting employees due to a lack of available qualified staff to choose from as well as a lack of capacity to cover relocation costs. Higher gas prices are also a factor in rural areas.
"Harder to find qualified personnel willing to work for the wage we offer, especially as we live in an isolated area and positions are often part-time -- people will not re-locate for this."
The emerging issue related to recruitment and retention is complex and not easily resolved. Repeatedly agencies reported two key issues: wages and availability of qualified staff.
"Until non union wages are on par with union wages we will continue to have difficulty hiring and retaining qualified staff"¦"
"It will all require money, at least! We are also going to be increasingly challenged to hire people who speak different languages that match the immigrant/refugee population in the community and who are qualified to do the work."
"Older workers are leaving the field and younger employees require much training and orientation. We just can't pay a living wage. Our admin staff shares a 1.6 position...this includes myself, business manager and reception/graphics, counsellor support, admin support (aka wonder woman) We are all seriously below our wage grid."
Without the timely hiring of staff, other issues emerge for the agency.
"We have lost substantial contracts due to our inability to fill positions, we may lose more contracts"
"The specialized nature of the work with children, youth and families who have very complex issues to deal with requires staff who possess special skill, patience, commitment, and positive enthusiastic personality."
"If we cannot successfully address this issue then there will be a huge snowball effect, staff will be denied time off, staff will get tired and sick, staff will be removed from work by their physicians or employees will look for a less stressed environment to work, leading to a lack of coverage for time off, stability and services to clients will be affected."
Agencies recognize that they face an enormous problem and are thinking about what they must do to try to ameliorate the problem.
"The pool of available talent is lean. We have to find creative ways of making the organization more attractive to prospective employees. We have to interface more effectively with the institutions that are training these individuals. We have to create the capacity to support practicum applications from those same institutions."
PART FOUR: FEDERATION MEMBERSHIP SERVICES & BENEFITS
The Federation of Child and Family Services has been in operation for 26 years. 58% of its members have been in the organization for more than 10 years and a further 15% for 6 to 10 years. In itself, this speaks to a solid commitment to the Federation and its value. Networking and information-sharing (e.g. general meetings) were cited by 71% of respondents as a reason for joining. Sixty eight percent cited the collective strength and increasing "˜voice' of the sector as reasons for joining the Federation, while 59% cited access to information, such as media and government policy updates and 43% cited access to benefits and services e.g. insurance.
A series of questions were asked about what the membership found to be the most useful of Federation activities. The following percentages reflect aspects of the responses in key areas:
Activity (Valuable,extremely valuable/OK/Not so Valuable)
Media Clippings (41%/34%/25%)
Weekly News (42%/40%/18%)
Gov't Info (82%/13%/5%)
ED & Board Communications (69%/28%/3%)
General Provincial Meetings (69%/21%/10%)
Regional Meetings (60%/18%/22%)
Education and Training (45%/33%/22%)
General Insurance (36%/8%/56%)
Health and Disability (43%/11%/38%)
Special Research and Reports (73%/26%/1%)
Sector leadership (82%/18%/0%)
Specific Initiatives (69%/22%/8%)
The Federation generally received positive feedback about how it is doing overall. Quotes such as "It keeps getting better each year -- thanks, and please stay the course!" or "Again, thanks for the excellent leadership and sensitive balance in building good working relationships with government while at the same time advocating strongly for the sector. Much appreciated!" or "I receive significant value as does our agency", were sprinkled throughout the comments section.
There were very few comments which indicated a degree of dissatisfaction with the current direction such as:
"One of the reasons listed in the past would have been advocacy and systemic change which is not here - the voice of the fed is increasingly like the chamber of commerce for social service agencies - self interested";
However, most comments focussed on how the Federation could enhance directions already established. One of the more common themes was that the Federation needs to move past any singular focus on MCFD. The following are examples of the suggestions members made with respect to moving forward:
"The federation could play a stronger role in fostering more effective working relationships between these member organizations to counteract the tendency toward fragmentation in what is often perceived to be an environment of limited resources."
"Increase profile and focus of the work of the Federation across Ministries, i.e. less emphasis on MCFD."
"Every year each of our not for profit members have new board members go on to our boards. Many of them have no governance expertise in this sector. If we could position ourselves like the UBCM as the place to attend and get the training needed in leadership of your agency that would be great. Cost is a factor--maybe the province would see that this would be a benefit to the stability of sector. Connecting with the federal funders so they see the Fed the group to go to in BC--like we have with the province."
""¦ promote the value of the sector at a provincial level, profiling the work of its non-profit member agencies emphasising its community governance roots and giving voice to its key constituents, those who benefit from the services."
"Maybe we should do a piece in the employment section of Vancouver Sun on working in the field...."
"Work hard on the salary and benefits parity in the sector. Work hard on contract improvements."
"Increase information about developments in funding world and how to take advantage of such opportunities. Increase 'real' information about government initiatives. Ministry speak is not informative in and of itself. Mobilize the membership to challenge the funder through a variety of means."
"Advocating for realistic core and operating costs as well as closer wage parity with government counsellors and therapists is high on my list. We are a rural agency and quite isolated. We pay high costs in travel to serve clients, have no service clubs to raise money for things such as building upkeep so core costs increases are also relevant for us. Regional training opportunities such as Justice Institute would be great!!"
The Federation received interesting feedback on the content and timing of both provincial and regional meetings which will assist in future planning and several priorities for action were highlighted by the respondents.
PART 5: PRIORITIES The following priorities were highlighted by members for Federation attention:
* Operational sustainability - 57%
* Wages and benefits - equity - 48%
* Government relations - 38%
* Recruitment and Retention - 38%
* Promising Practices Research - 38%
* Advocacy - 25%
* Aboriginal transitions - 15%
The scope and contributions of the community social services sector are huge and were only hinted at through this survey. The value of the Federation of Child and Family Services to help to focus issues for the sector at a provincial level was clearly described in the survey and there were some excellent suggestions made in regards to enhancing the services and capacity of the Federation. Clearly, the sector is under considerable financial strain. Feedback from this survey will inform the Federation as it develops strategies to address this and other important concerns.