MONTREAL — The heads of Quebec youth protection agencies are highlighting a shortage of qualified case workers and calling for changes to prevent tragedies like the recent death of a seven-year-old girl that has shaken the province.
"Since the announcement of this young girl's death, we have all been deeply affected and troubled, as is each worker and manager in our services," the agency directors say in an open letter published Monday. "Our thoughts are with this child, and we offer our sympathies to her family and relatives. Such tragedies should never happen."
The provincial agency has come under scrutiny and faced criticism following the death of a girl in Granby, Que., whose case had been on the radar of youth protection officials from a young age.
The girl, whose identity is protected by a publication ban, was found badly injured in her family home and died in hospital on April 30. Before she died, her father, 30, and stepmother, 35, were charged with unlawful confinement, while the stepmother was also charged with aggravated assault.
"Each of us chose to dedicate our professional lives to our society's children, and especially the most vulnerable among them, out of conviction and love," the letter, co-signed by the 20 agency heads says. "Like all citizens of Quebec, we have no tolerance for any circumstance or event which endangers the lives of children."
The Quebec government has ordered an internal probe of the girl's death. A public coroner's inquest has been ordered, and the province's human and youth rights commission will also investigate. A criminal investigation is being led by Quebec provincial police.
The death has raised questions about whether youth protection could have done more to help, and the government asked the head of the agency in the Eastern Townships region to step aside while it investigates.
The agency heads said they are fully committed to investigations to establish the circumstances surrounding the death and implement any necessary measures.
"We agree with what many workers and experts have expressed: to successfully fulfil our mission of protecting children, the social services network needs to be better supported," the letter adds.
One regional director said the youngster's death has reverberated in the agency's regional offices.
"All of the regions have in some way or another felt the impact of this," Assunta Gallo, head of youth protection for the south-central Montreal region, said in an interview. "Everyone comes into this field wanting to protect children, that's our reason for being in this job."
Those employees help vulnerable youth navigate harsh realities, everything from distress, poverty, mental illness to rejection, isolation and violence. But agency heads added there aren't enough of those workers, and the cases have become more complicated over time.
Linda See, who oversees the agency handling English youth protection cases in Montreal, said workers sometimes deal with blended families, where children may have multiple sets of parents and multiple homes. There can also be other issues at play like substance abuse. In Montreal, newcomers to the country often require culturally appropriate services as well as translators to help case workers bridge the language divide.
"It's difficult," See said in an interview. "You go into situations that are not easy, you are dealing with multiple problems and families."
The agencies are asking the Quebec government to help them entice people to get into the profession.
"I think part of it is not necessarily understanding the work we do on a daily basis," Gallo said. "We often hear about the work that's done in this field when things don't go well, but you don't hear about the times you have helped a child or adults who were followed in youth protection become a success."
Forty years after the province's Youth Protection Act came into effect in 1979, the agency heads called on the Quebec government and society at large to commit again to making youth protection a priority.
"This commitment is required to reaffirm our collective belief that the protection of children is a social priority and that as such, the establishments charged with this mandate must be provided with the means to act quickly," they wrote.