By Justin Lethbridge
BRANTFORD-Hundreds filled the street in front of Brantford-Brant MPP Will Bouma Friday afternoon amid massive changes at Brant Family and Children Services (FACS).
President of Canadian Union of Public Employees Local 181 Jennifer Kirby told the crowd that today was not a good day.
“Today is not a happy day at Brant FACS, as most of you are aware our board resigned today,” an announcement that was met with loud chants of ‘shame’ by the crowd. “I just want to clarify, that shame is not on our board. That shame is on the position our board was in because they were forced, ethically, to resign. Our Executive Director was also let go this morning and again shame, not on him but on the reasons that he is no longer here today.”
Prior to his firing, Brant FACS Executive Director Andrew Koster had held that post with the agency for 20 years.
Kirby said that there are two main issues that Brant FACS as well as child welfare and social service agencies across the province are currently facing
“That is chronic underfunding and cuts to our funding and our services that we can provide. We know here in Brant we embrace a community model because it works. We provide wraparound services to our families so they can avoid long wait times for counselling and services. We can’t do that if we don’t have the time and resources to provide it.”
Kirby said the other issue is that the province is claiming that Brant has a mandate drift.
“They’re trying to tell you that by us providing supportive services to our families, that isn’t keeping children safe. I say they’re lying. That’s exactly what we’re doing.”
She added that while the province will claim the agency’s overspending is what put it into debt, it is the increase in operating costs without any additional funding which has led to the agency’s debt.
“Don’t tell me Brant has mismanaged funds. They mismanaged nothing, they managed with what they had. They did the best with what they had and our board and our executive director have stood up and said ‘no more cuts’.”
In addition to concerns about funding cuts, Brantford is facing an unprecedented opioid crisis which has seen the highest rate of emergency room visits for overdoses in Ontario in 2017. Ontario averages 54 opioid overdoses per 100,000 people who visit an emergency room while Brantford averages 141 overdoses per 100,000.
“The Ministry has said in the media,” Brantford Social Worker Steven Murray told the crowd, “that there is no evidence of the opioid crisis in Brantford impacting our work. I ask them this, when is the last time that any of you have been called to home to support a child or youth that has had an in-home overdose by a parent. People are dying in this community, what more evidence do you need.”
Fired up by speeches from Kirby, Murray and President of Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE) Ontario Fred Hahn, the crowd marched from the steps of Brant FACS to the steps of MPP Will Bouma’s office.
Carrying signs, air horns and cow bells the crowd chanted ‘We want our board not Doug Ford’ and ‘They say cut-backs, we say fight back’ among other things. While MPP Bouma was not there, one of his employees came out and read a statement from Bouma.
“While it is unfortunate the board has decided to resign today, we are prepared with a transition plan that will ensure the uninterrupted care of the children involved. My commitment is to the wealth fare of the vulnerable children who rely on the services provided.”
Unimpressed with the statement the entire crowd turned their back on the speaker while their chanting of ‘shame’ drowned out the rest of his statement.
In addition to Premier Doug Ford’s government’s cut of 25 per cent to all children’s aid agencies last fall, a loss of $300,000 annually for Brant FACS, the government also established an Indigenous Children’s Aid Society. This new agency was designed to look after roughly 50 Indigenous children on the Six Nations who had been part of Brant FACS which meant an additional loss of $700,000 in funding for Brant. Speaking with the Turtle Island News, Brant Social Worker Steven Murray said that there is no blame being put on anyone from the Six Nations.
“I want to be clear that we support Six Nations in every way. This is not about them separating and receiving this funding, this is about the lack of funding provided probably to both agencies to support the transition. That’s really where this started, with three major projects in the last several years that, in my opinion, the ministry has underfunded and I think Mr. Koster has been public about that…One was a devolution to the new Indigenous Children’s Aid which cost a lot of money to both agencies… All three projects executed at the same time has a cost which, to my understanding, the ministry has refused to adequately fund.”
Murray said that in the immediate future, the resignation of the board will not affect the children who rely on the services Brant FACS provides.
“The frontline workers are going to continue to do what we do every day and we made that commitment. I’m worried because we have a really good agency and really good community based model and the government isn’t willing to work with our model….I’ve been in this work for ten years and from what I’ve seen when there needs to be cuts, it’s the preventative stuff and the good social work we do with our families on the frontline that tends to get cut first. We can’t cut anymore in Brantford, it just cannot happen.”
He said that he is hopeful that the new supervisor the province will be appointing to manage the agency will be willing to work with the model they currently have. While these changes do not have a direct impact on the Six Nations, President of CUPE Ontario Fred Hahn told the Turtle Island News that more agencies could see cuts in the future.
“The Conservative government, in their budget projections, have cut one billion dollars from funding for community and social services which is the ministry that funds services like Brant FACS. There are more cuts coming, not just for here but for other places. When case loads are increasing, when an opioid crisis is unfolding, what we need is more support not less.”