Children's Aid Society workers in Ottawa strike Monday

UPDATE | In a news release Monday, the Children's Aid Society of Ottawa said while its office is closed, non-union workers continue to provide essential services.

Local children's aid workers began picketing Monday morning after months of contract negotiations failed to address what their union calls a chronic lack of funding.

Workers with the Children's Aid Society of Ottawa (CASO) had been in negotiations with their employer since November after their three-year contract expired at the end of 2023.

Their early Saturday morning strike deadline passed with no deal in place. They began walking the picket lines at 8 a.m. Monday outside their office in Ottawa's Pineview neighbourhood.

Michele Thorn, an adoption worker with CASO and the local union president, said the strike is the result of years of funding cuts and workers facing burnout and increased job expectations.

"We're not robots," Thorn said. "We just can't keep absorbing more and more and more. And that somehow just seems to be the expectation."

She said she's seen the strain on frontline workers first hand.

"They cry in their cars every day," she said.

Funding, layoff protection among key demands

Striking workers have two main priorities when they eventually return to the negotiation table: ensuring pay increases reflect a rising cost of living and getting protection from layoffs.

Thorn said the union learned during the negotiations their employer would be laying off 20 people at CASO, something that could have "catastrophic" consequences.

This isn't the kind of job where you just kind of turn off your laptop at the end of the day. - Eric Schonbacher, child protection worker

CASO has operated at a deficit of $3.3 million over the past two fiscal years.  More than half of Ontario's children's aid societies are similarly stretched.

The Ontario Public Service Employees Union (OPSEU), which represents CAS workers across the province, has reported that 49 of the 53 child welfare societies face an accumulated budget shortfall of $67 million, representing about 30 per cent of their operating costs.

Province expects 'uninterrupted' service

On Monday afternoon, the Ministry of Children, Community and Social Services said in a statement it had allocated $1.6 billion to 50 child welfare societies across Ontario.

"While labour negotiations are entirely a matter between the union and the Children's Aid Society (CAS), independent organizations run by locally elected Board of Directors, it is our government's expectation that business continuity plans are in place to ensure all mandated services continue to be provided to children, youth and families, uninterrupted," the statement read.

The ministry added the 2024 budget allocates $36.5 million in additional funding for child welfare this year, as a base increase to ongoing funding.

Funding for CASO is provided by the province based on the number of children in care and whether they need to continue providing care in the community.

According to CASO, 91 per cent of children they work with remain with their families. It shows they've been successful, Thorn said, but it's not reflected in the way they're funded — and the organization is actually getting less support as a result.

"We are punished by doing good work, keeping kids out of care," Thorn said. "People have nothing left."

A CASO strike trailer. CASO workers have been in negotiations with their employer since November but had not reached an agreement as of July 8, 2024.
CASO workers have been in negotiations with their employer since November, but had not reached a deal as of Sunday afternoon. (Submitted by Michele Thorn)

System 'crumbling,' leaves kids in need

Child protection worker Eric Schonbacher said no matter what assistance families require — whether it's housing or psychiatric care — aid is becoming further out of reach.

"You're having to advocate longer and harder to get people the support that they need," he said.

He added he feels "disheartened" by the way the province has handled the situation.

"From the beginning, this just felt different," said Schonbacher, who has been through several rounds of negotiations over his decade-long tenure at CASO.

"The system is just crumbling around us."

'An absolute last resort'

The job isn't easy to step away from, Schonbacher said. He worries about the children who may be left without aid workers who fully understand their situations or whom they feel comfortable reaching out to for help.

"This isn't the kind of job where you just kind of turn off your laptop at the end of the day," he said. "To just turn off your phone and not be able to help [these kids] is hard to wrap your mind around."

Thorn said CASO workers would have liked to return to the negotiation table over the weekend. But as of Sunday they'd received no response from their employer, she said, aside from emails about the logistics of online account access and return of electronic devices in the event of a strike.

"Workers want to continue working with their children and families," Thorn said. "This [strike] was an absolute last resort."