Children's aid agency fires five over porn
Director describes e-mails as 'an affront to our values'
TORONTO - The Catholic Children's Aid Society of Toronto has outright fired five staff and disciplined 32 others in connection with an e-mail pornography scandal.
Most of the sanctioned employees were administrative support staff not directly engaged in serving the agency's clients -- area Roman Catholic youngsters and their families -- but six supervisors and seven child-protection workers were also involved, executive director Mary McConnville told the National Post yesterday.
"It's very distressing for a child-welfare agency," Ms. McConnville said.
She hastened to add that the agency's internal investigation uncovered no child pornography, and that the agency had satisfied itself that none of its clients -- in the year ending last March, the CCAS served 21,375 Toronto children who remained with their families and another 1,854 who were taken into care -- were affected.
"But still," she said, "because of the nature of the work we do, it's completely unacceptable that this would happen here. It's offensive to the public and to our clients. It's also something that's terribly offensive to all of the others on staff."
The total number of employees found linked to the scandal represents about 7% of the agency's total full-time staff of about 475.
Ms. McConnville said the matter came to light through ''a bit of a fluke."
The agency was looking into a staff complaint of sexual harassment, and, in the course of that, someone made an allegation about offensive e-mail.
That subject of the sexual harassment complaint was also fired, but was not implicated in the e-mail scandal.
The broader investigation began in April, Ms. McConnville said, and by May 8, "We began to take action. We wanted to act fairly but aggressively. Society staff has to have confidence in the agency and so does the public." She said the agency had informed the union, the Canadian Union of Public Employees, throughout.
At its worst, Ms. McConnville told the Post, employees were exchanging and storing on their office computers "material of a sexually explicit nature," what she also termed "the obscene sexual stuff," and comprised conduct she said was "thoroughly unprofessional and unethical."
At its mildest, she said, the offensive material consisted of "dirty jokes, ethnic jokes, that kind of thing," breaches Ms. McConnville described as "poor judgment."
All of it she pronounced "an affront to our values as a child-welfare agency, and as Catholics."
She said it was "astounding" that so many staffers had felt free to circulate such material, pointing out that since 1999, the agency had issued six "very specific directives on what was inappropriate use of e-mail," in addition to its long-standing policy on sexual harassment and discrimination.
Ms. McConnville said that while the internal computer system has a "firewall" to protect the integrity of its sensitive case files from being accessed externally, employees can receive outside e-mails via the Internet.
This, she said, is how the pornographic material apparently first made its way into agency offices. It was then either circulated to other staff, or stored, or both.
In addition to the five e-mail-related firings -- only one was a child-protection worker, who had not been actively working in child protection at the time, while one was a case aide who dealt with clients only on the telephone -- 26 employees were suspended without pay for between three and five days, depending on what Ms. McConnville called "the volume and nature" of the offensive material.
Of the suspended employees, six were supervisors (only three of whom worked in the service area), six were child-protection workers and one was a case aide.
Another six staffers received warning letters on their personnel files.
Ms. McConnville said that while the agency is confident it has ended the practice in the short term, "We want to make sure it doesn't happen again."
To that end, she said, the agency's entire staff has just gone through a mandatory refresher course on its harassment and discrimination policy, is looking for some sort of screening tool that might prevent such material being transmitted into the agency without interfering with its work, and intends to do "some monitoring from here on ... From my perspective, this is like a cancer in the workplace. We've got to talk about what happened."
Last spring, at a coroner's inquest into the June 23, 1997, death of baby Jordan Heikamp, who starved to death in downtown Toronto while he was ostensibly under the watchful eye of worker Angie Martin, Ms. Martin and her supervisor took the opportunity to complain bitterly of their growing workload.
At the end of the 12-week inquest, the five-member jury returned with a verdict of homicide in Jordan's death.
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