Ministry rebuffs call for more regulation of social work

Social work lacks oversight?

With the provincial government dealing with a barrage of lawsuits over the alleged actions of former Kelowna child protection worker Robert Riley Saunders, there is a call for more regulation to prevent the situation from ever happening again. 

The B.C. Association of Social Workers has renewed its decades-old call for the title of “social worker” to be fully protected and regulated by a college, like the majority of other healthcare professions already are.

Provincial legislation currently provides exemptions to social workers who are employees of the Ministry and Children and Family Development, meaning they do not have to register with the B.C. College of Social Workers and be subject to increased vetting and disciplinary proceedings.

“They have a very weak argument that says ‘Well we have processes that ensure our social workers practice to a high standard,’” says Michael Crawford, President of the B.C. Association of Social Workers, a member-services and advocacy group distinct from the regulatory B.C. College of Social Workers.

The provincial government has admitted “vicarious liability” for Robert Riley Saunders, who is alleged to have stolen from dozens of Indigenous youth in his care. Castanet reported last year that Saunders had a pair of fake degrees from the University of Manitoba on file with the province. 

Crawford says that never would have been possible had Saunders been required to register with a regulatory college, much like pharmacists, doctors, dentists and others do.

Regulatory colleges have the power to issue fines, suspend or revoke licenses and conduct investigations. Their primary mandate is to protect and serve the public and ensure their registrants are qualified, competent as well as following best practices and ethics.

“Someone like Robert Saunders would have had to submit his application to the college,” Crawford said. “They would have looked at it, contacted the University of Manitoba, and said ‘I’m sorry you are a fraud, go away.’”

Had the profession of social worker been formally regulated, Crawford said Saunders’ colleagues would have also kept him in check.

“All of those individuals that knew Robert Saunders was doing what he was doing, and I think there is a few, they would have had a responsibility of duty to report,” he said. “Had they not reported, they would be pulled in front of a disciplinary committee.”

Faced with recruitment challenges for child protection workers, Crawford says the provincial government has actually broadened the educational requirements to allow degrees such as anthropology, sociology, theology and “a little bit of experience.”

“The practice of social work needs to be regulated like any other profession in the province, and MCFD just refuses to do it,” he added.

In a statement to Castanet, the MCFD said requiring all social workers to register with a college “would weaken, compromise and/or duplicate the statutory oversight model currently in place.”

MCFD said their standards “reflect our legislated mandate” adding “the safety and well-being of children is the paramount consideration under our statute.”

The B.C. Director of Child Welfare maintains the ability to revoke a social workers front-line responsibilities, the statement continued, adding “all prospective employees are required to sign a statement confirming the accuracy and validity of information in their application package, including educational history.”

“Moving forward, the Public Service Agency is working with the ministry to develop a screening guide for hiring managers for child protection workers. This process will include validation of an applicant’s credentials,” the ministry concluded.

Robert Saunders has not been criminally charged for the alleged thefts. 

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