11/06/2014 02:39 EST | Updated 01/06/2015 05:59 EST

Minister promises better, faster services for vulnerable families in B.C.

VICTORIA - British Columbia's children's minister is promising more staff and improved delivery of services after a scathing report said workload and management issues are leaving vulnerable families at risk.

Stephanie Cadieux said 70 temporary child-welfare staff will be hired full time and by the end of 2016, a total of 200 people will have been added to the ministry.

Changes in the coming months will include the centralization of screening for child protection cases, allowing more social workers to meet with families, Cadieux said Thursday.

Deputy minister Alison Bond said a centralized online service will be used for people applying for funding, and a main phone centre will replace some services including initial appointments at local offices.

Social workers who now spend time answering phones will be able to meet with clients, she said.

"We are going to ensure that our offices are staffed. We understand that we need at least 10 per cent more social workers on the ground. We're going to make that happen."

A report by the B.C. Government and Services Employees' Union said chronic understaffing and poor management have hobbled the efforts of workers who are already frustrated by a computer system plagued with problems.

The report surveyed staff including social workers, child protection workers and family workers who provide counselling to children and parents.

It said the number of caseloads per social worker far exceeds acceptable standards and noted that retired judge Ted Hughes recommended in Manitoba last year that 20 cases should be the norm.

"A review of best practices found in academic research suggest that individual caseloads for these frontline professionals should be an average of 16 to 17 cases every month," said the report titled Choose Children: A Case For Investing in Child, Youth, and Family Services in British Columbia.

However, Bond said the province will not set any standards for caseloads and that discussions with staff suggest files aren't being closed because of a lack of administrative staff.

"Sometimes administrative work means closing files. Closing files would change your caseload number. The caseload number is not the primary way for us to monitor whether or not workload is an issue."

Cadieux said delivery of some services will be redesigned so, for example, children and youth suffering from mental-health issues will be assessed within hours instead of months so they can be seen sooner by a psychologist or other professional.

Office hours will also be changed so that families can be better served, she said.

Children's representative Mary Ellen Turpel-Lafond said she's glad Cadieux has finally acknowledged workload issues but the Ministry of Children and Family Development is currently operating with a $100-million cut from its budget.

"If we're going into a budget cycle with no new money for MCFD a lot of these changes are going to be quite impossible to implement. In my view, the minister is going to have to get to the cabinet table and ask for a budget lift."

Turpel-Lafond said any "redesign" of services will have to be backed by workable solutions because the ministry tends to overpromise and then not deliver.

"In my time as representative, which has been since 2008, I've had three ministers and three deputy ministers and I've had three redesigns," she said.

"I think this is a little bit different from the vanity makeovers of the past, although we're still probably dealing with the aftermath of those."

She said continued oversight of the ministry is needed because she is not convinced that the right number of workers will be hired to deal with families in need.

Cadieux said her ministry will "reprioritize" wherever possible to keep its commitments and there is money available for the 70 positions that will go from temporary to full time.

"For the rest of the 200 (workers) that will be hired over the next 14 months we will have to find a way to make that work within our budget."

-- By Camille Bains in Vancouver