Canada

‘Racism is awful here’: York Region Children’s Aid Society workers, community members speak about troubling allegations surrounding the agency

York Region Children’s Aid Society is a “toxic” workplace where people routinely cry at their desks, where there is a “culture of hopelessness,” “racism” and the “best decisions to keep children safe are not being made,” according to a staff survey conducted by their union just before the pandemic shut the agency’s offices.

On Friday, the Ministry of Children, Community and Social Services launched a third-party review of the child welfare agency in response to what it called “troubling allegations of racism, bullying and harassment” within the organization.

But employees within the agency and community members say York CAS has been in a “negative spiral” for the past few years, with things “getting worse” under the current leadership.

“We kept hearing from our members that many were deteriorating emotionally and physically at an alarming level,” said Andrew Harrigan, president of OPSEU Local 304 and a front-line worker.

“What was most shocking to us is how many members have chosen to remain silent and not ‘rock the boat’ when faced with bullying and harassment within the workplace,” said Harrigan. “These members fear being targeted, micro-managed, intimidated, and potentially passed over for permanent positions.”

The union conducted the survey — filled out by 57 per cent of the nearly 300 unionized staff — in March to pinpoint the root of the problem in an agency that is responsible for child welfare in York Region.

Among the findings:

When asked about the results of the survey, before the province announced the third-party review, CEO Nancy French said she was taking the findings “seriously.”

“We are concerned and saddened by the issues that have been raised in the survey, but we also appreciate and value the transparency of our employees in sharing their experiences. We know we need to do more, and we want to assure our team members that we are taking the findings incredibly seriously.”

In a similar email to staff, obtained by the Star, she told them to bring “specific concerns or allegations” forward to Human Resources and they “will be supported.”

A ministry spokesperson told the Star they were made aware of the problems in May, and reached out to the agency’s board of directors to give them a chance to address them.

On Friday, the ministry announced it was launching a third-party review.

“This review was prompted by a lack of sufficient progress being made by the York Region Children’s Aid Society board of directors,” said Alex Spence, communications adviser| for Jill Dunlop, the associate minister of children and women’s issues.

Spence said that the government had provided the “board with a number of opportunities and suggestions to develop a community-based plan that would address these concerns.”

“After considering the Board’s approach, the Ministry is moving forward with an external third-party review to ensure the health and well-being of staff who provide the children and youth of York Region with the culturally appropriate and effective services they need,” said Spence. The review is expected to take two months.

The provincial review will include an “assessment of workplace culture, including leadership, alleged bullying of harassment and staff, and the diversity and inclusivity of the workplace environment, assessment of human resources policies and procedures, and accommodation policies,” and will be made public.

French did not respond to questions about the province’s review.

Instead, the Star received an email from her assistant on Tuesday, forwarding an emailed statement from board chair Tahir Shafiq.

“The York Region Children’s Aid Society (YRCAS) Board of Directors welcomes the directive for an operational review…and offers its full support and cooperation,” Shafiq wrote. “We take this matter very seriously.”

Andrew Harrigan, president of the OPSEU Local 304, and front-line worker at York CAS, said his members at the agency were deteriorating at an "alarming" level.

Child welfare can be difficult work at the best of times. But over the past year, Harrigan said the level of burnout among workers at the agency was alarming. Numerous staff were on stress leave, and at least 10 staff had left the organization, including directors, supervisors and front-line staff, some silenced by publicly funded “exit packages that include ‘do not disclose’ agreements,” he added.

Among those who left was the communications director, who resigned in March. The agency used public funds to hire a communications firm two months later. In its directive Friday, the ministry ordered the agency to “immediately terminate” the contract with the firm and provide all documentation “regarding the procurement process.”

Anonymous testimonials from the survey and conversations with employees who the Star has agreed to not name because they feared for their jobs, paint a picture of a workplace where every decision was micro-managed by management, where workers were left in tears after meetings, and where people were afraid to speak up.

“There is far too much time wasted by COO & CEO correcting people’s written work (including typos and spacing). If they have time to pass reports/documents back and forth up to 20 times, they clearly aren’t busy enough,” one testimonial states.

One account said management decisions often clashed with those on the front lines: “As a front line staff, I don’t feel heard when case decisions are running up against management decisions about the direction that the agency is taking. Bad decisions are being made for children and families and are increasing the levels of frustration that workers are facing from our children and families in our day to day work with them.”

The word “toxic” was used 46 times to describe workplace culture in the survey, and as another worker said bluntly: “Racism is awful here.”

Another account said: “I have been approached by community stakeholders who are very worried about the decisions that YRCAS is making for families in their communities and that children/families are not being supported as they used to be.”

Shernett Martin, executive director with the Vaughan African Canadian Association, said she was the one constantly looking to build relationships with the agency.

“There really wasn’t a push to create policies that would support Black youth in care,” said Martin. “And anything that did happen was initiated by us.”

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“So when parents come to us if they have been approached by CAS, there is fear about how their case will be handled,” she added.

Martin said the relationship between the Black community and York CAS got off to a rocky start at a community event in 2019 intended to build bridges and publicly commit the agency to implement race equity principles set out in a project called One Vision One Voice.

One Vision was conceived in 2015 to help address all children’s aid agencies in the province address the over-representation and experiences of disparities faced by Black families and children who come in contact with the child welfare system.

At the event, one of the York agency’s board members made an anti-Black racist comment that was loud enough to be heard by people around her, said Martin.

The board member was fired as a result of the community demanding action, but the relationship never healed after that, said Martin.

Kearie Daniel, a founding member of Parents of Black Children, said York CAS’s failure to implement One Vision came down to a one thing.

“York could not be in a better position. They literally have a road map that tells them what to do. They have a community of united Black community groups who are invested, willing and ready to help support. They had amazing staff,” said Daniel. “What it came down to is a lack of will from the leadership.”

The former supervisor of diversity and outreach for York CAS quit in March, following years of “limitations” placed on his work, said Daniel.

The ministry has now mandated that York CAS provide it with a workplan to implement the One Vision protocols within the next two weeks.

In an email to the Star two weeks ago, French said “We have been implementing strategies that include connecting Black youth with culturally appropriate supports and activities, holding ongoing meetings with community partners, implementing the agency’s initiative supporting families in the community as well as returning children to their families.”

Daniel said she has seen no evidence of this happening: “If the work was being done, we would know.”

Harrigan said management also ignored pleas from Black employees who asked the agency in 2018 to implement policies to address discrimination and racism on the job, such as being subjected to racial slurs by families out in the field. No such policies were ever implemented, sources told the Star.

French told the Star management had finalized an equity action plan for the CAS last year, as well as implementing a workplace code of conduct and discrimination and harassment policy.

Thus emotions were high in June, in the weeks following the brutal death of George Floyd, when York CAS held a virtual staff meeting for Black staff to share their experiences with anti-Black racism at work and beyond.

But the meeting began with French in tears apologizing for her “failure…to continue the conversations, to continue the work that needed to be done that we started a while back,” she said at the meeting, her voice breaking.

Harrigan said the union “implored” management to conduct a third-party independent review into the survey’s findings. But the board ignored the calls, saying it would be open to a “special committee composed of members from the board, management and union.”

In a statement on Tuesday, Shafiq said the mandate of the special committee was to look into these allegations with YRCAS stakeholders and make a recommendation regarding a third-party review.

“The Ministry’s directive will help to accelerate the process toward a resolution.”

Shafiq also said the board stood behind the leadership of French, who has been there since 1985 and worked her way up to the top.

“The sector is also facing significant challenges and we believe Nancy is best suited to guide the agency through these challenging times,” he said of French, who earned $194,850 in 2019.

Harrigan said with the ministry review in place, he hopes the board will take the workplace survey findings seriously.

“The worst thing would be that nothing comes from the review,” he said. “We need new leadership that cares, inspires and motivates our staff while ensuring that our workplace is free from harassment and toxicity.”

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