By Letter to the Editor on December 10, 2019.
On Friday, Oct. 25, Deborah Onwu, an experienced and well-regarded social worker, was stabbed to death by while on duty at a social and health-care centre in Calgary. An 18-year-old client is charged in the death.
Deborah’s death is tragic enough. What is more tragic is that many of the conditions that led to Deborah’s death are far too common across care facilities in Alberta.
Deborah was working alone with a client who had been previously diagnosed and classified as a complex client with a history of violence, and requiring at least a two-to-one staff-client ratio. This is a fairly common practice among care agencies, which are often forced to pursue cost savings in an atmosphere of increasing fiscal austerity.
We know that a cocktail of factors – not least inadequate funding, inadequate regulatory oversight and monitoring, inadequate training, poor working conditions – have contributed to making social care and health services one of the sectors with the highest rate of workplace violence. A recent study by the Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE, 2016) found that 90 per cent of Canadian front-line residential care workers have experienced physical violence from residents (or their relatives). Yet, governments do not even keep statistics on the level of violence experienced in this sector, a sector that is disproportionately made up of women, immigrants and minority groups.
This sector desperately needs champions in government and civil society who will help push regulations and policies to ensure basic safety and dignity for front-line staff, and thereby also ensure the highest quality of care for clients. At least four immediate steps that should be considered by the relevant stakeholders include:
1. Reverse the trend of fiscal austerity and increase effective public spending on social and health care for the most vulnerable groups in our communities.
2. Ensure mandatory third-party safety training for all new front-line staff to ensure they all understand how to respond independently to work conditions that potentially compromise their safety.
3. Create an ombudsman service which staff members could contact to relay issues that compromise staff safety after such issues had been taken up with the staff’s organization and had not been treated satisfactorily.
4. Ensure greater accountability of care agencies in order to make certain that funds are appropriately utilized for the optimal care of clients without jeopardizing the safety of staff.
Faculty of Social Work, University of Calgary