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Regulator urged for social workers

Concept heard during Phoenix inquiry

Legislation to have Manitoba join the rest of Canada with regulated, accountable social workers isn't a lofty ideal but a plan in the works, the inquiry into the death of Phoenix Sinclair heard Tuesday.

After testimony about social workers being so overloaded students and retirees were recruited "to pick up the slack," the registrar of the Manitoba Institute of Registered Social Workers told the inquiry what's needed is more registered professionals.

Miriam Browne talked about the Social Work Profession Act, created in 2009 to form a governing body, which has still has not been proclaimed law in Manitoba.

"It would protect the public interest by regulating and supporting the profession," Browne told the inquiry. Her group has been pushing the Manitoba government to make it a priority for all social workers.

She expects the legislation will be proclaimed in 2013.

"It increases accountability," Browne told the inquiry. When proclaimed, the act will control who can use the term 'social worker,' said Browne.

Now, anyone can call themselves a social worker. Manitoba has close to 1,000 registered social workers, she said. Most are in the health-care field, where a culture of regulated professions already exists, said Browne. Registered social workers must have a social work degree from an accredited university.

"That's at the heart of quite a few people's concerns," she told the inquiry.

Browne said they will register social work veterans without a degree who have an equivalent combination of education and experience. A grandfathering clause would give workers in the field three years to apply to become registered, she said.

So far, none of the social workers who've testified at the Phoenix Sinclair inquiry has said they're registered social workers. All but one had a social work degree.

Most said they didn't see a need to register.

"It's more about the commitment members make to the profession," Browne said.

Members have to have criminal-background checks, must complete 40 hours a year of professional development and pay membership fees that cover such things as liability insurance. Registered social workers have professional standards they have to meet or face disciplinary action. The public benefits because they have a place to take a complaint about a social worker, she said.

Earlier in the day, the supervisor of the intake unit that closed the file on Phoenix Sinclair in 2004 testified workers were so overloaded, it affected their work.

Government lawyer Sacha Paul told Carolyn Parsons employment records show she actually had a full complement of staff.

"If that's what the record shows" it must be true, said Parsons. When the workload increased as devolution of the child welfare agencies "went live" in 2005, the department brought in students, retirees and more part-timers to "pick up the slack," he told her. Her intake unit didn't get any of that extra help while it dealt with the upheaval, she said.

"That was taking a lot of energy from people and away from the practice," said Parsons.

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