Jeff Heuchert, Gazette staff
The Huron-Perth Children’s Aid Society is feeling the squeeze from a new provincial funding model, and has eliminated a single management position currently vacant due to a maternity leave as a result.
Local children's aid director of service, Maxine McCauley, said the child welfare agency will receive $16.7 million from the province this year. That represents roughly $300,000, or about two per cent, less than what the agency spent on operating costs in 2012/13.
"As the money gets tighter we do have to re-evaluate what our priority is and where we need to focus," McCauley told the Gazette earlier this week. "We obviously have to find a way to live within our budget so we're making adjustments as we move forward."
Additionally, the children's aid will not be hiring a kin finder - a position that the agency identified a need for in its recently completed strategic plan. The job would include partnering crown wards with extended families that can provide living arrangements as an alternative to foster care.
"We've put that on hold,” McCauley said, “and we will assess (the position) as we move forward with our spending and budgets.”
The budget challenges in Huron-Perth are being felt by child welfare agencies across the province after the government instituted a new framework for funding that is expected to result in a $50.6 million shortfall across Ontario.
Under the revised formula, half of children's aid funding is based on a three-year average of service volumes - completed investigations, open protection cases, children in care, and children moving into a foster home - while the remaining funding is dependent on socioeconomic factors like the number of low-income and one-parent families.
The result is that some agencies will receive a two per cent funding increase while others, like the Huron-Perth Children's Aid, will be left making up for a two per cent deficit.
"It is a mistake for the Liberal government to be cutting funding at the expense of supports to at-risk kids and families, foster parents, and volunteers," Lynn Gauthier-Baxter, president of the Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE) Local 1427, said in a statement released to media.
In a separate interview with the Gazette, Gauthier-Baxter, whose union represents about 99 workers at the Huron-Perth Children's Aid, pegged the loss from the new funding model on the local agency at closer to $700,000, and said the impact will be felt on services, front-line workers, and support staff.
The union head noted the local children’s aid has lost as many as 15 positions – full and part-time and occasional - through attrition since 2009, when CUPE had 114 members working at the agency.
The Huron-Perth Children’s Aid had 165 children in its care and provided services to 440 families last year, numbers that have remained relatively steady over the last three to four years.
“Delivery of services and programs is threatened because positions are not being filled and caseloads are being redistributed to already overtaxed workers,” Gauthier-Baxter said.
McCauley said the current government direction towards less funding is cause for concern for all child welfare agencies, particularly with the accountability agreements in place that mandate they operate within a balanced budget.
She added the children’s aid has spent considerable time reviewing its staffing and service volumes in relation to its allotted funding, and that for now no further staffing changes are anticipated.
With less funding over the long-term, McCauley said the children’s aid will have no choice but to focus its resources on protection and not prevention services, “which I think is a concern, because an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure."
It’s yet to be seen how the new funding model will impact ongoing negotiations between the children’s aid and its CUPE workers, who have been without a contract since March.
The union is asking for enhanced medical benefits and a salary increase of 2.9 per cent over the final two years of a four-year agreement. Gauthier-Baxter said the proposal, with its two years of wage freezes followed by modest increases, complies with the provincial discussion table model agreed upon by the government, unions, and the Ontario Association of Children’s Aid Societies several years ago, and would be similar to other deals that have been ratified in the province.
She is optimistic the two sides will be able to reach an agreement when they return to the bargaining table in August, and that no job sanctions are anticipated.
"We're here to negotiate with our employer in good faith, and we're prepared to work with the employer,” she added.
When asked if the union’s request, in light of the funding cuts, was realistic, McCauley answered, “We are continuing to bargain and we are hopeful that we'll reach some agreement."