The doors closed at Catholic Family Services of Hamilton on April 30th, after 74 years of service. This is the third family service agency in Ontario to close since the onset of the pandemic, with the others being in Thunder Bay and Northumberland. In each case, the ministry-funded programs live on through other service providers in the community. This includes services related to intimate partner violence, such as counselling for women and children and programs for offenders.

But family service agencies are more than a collection of their programs. They have a unique culture and core values that are lost to the community once the agency closes. They are among the oldest social service agencies, with histories dating back over 100 years. Most were established by a group of concerned citizens, at times with the support of faith-based donations, to bring relief to families dealing with socio-economic challenges. Over time the work changed. There was a growing need to support couples and families dealing with conflict, separation, and the challenges of blended families. Family service agencies responded to the needs by providing counselling to individuals, couples, and families to support healthy relationship functioning. This has remained a core service to this day; however, many have grown into multi-service organizations, often amalgamating with other service providers. Those seeking counselling do not need a diagnosis or a referral and typically there is a minimal wait time for an appointment. Family service agencies are the pioneers of adult walk-in counselling clinics in Ontario, often using piecemeal funding, with donations, ministry funds and earned revenue through social enterprise. It is a cost-effective and valuable service that is desperately needed at a time when our system of care is not able to meet the growing demands of mental health counselling.

While the work has changed, the core values have remained. Family service agencies continue to be grounded in their history of responding to community needs, filling the gaps in our current system of care. In many communities, they are the only service provider of couple and family therapy for people without the means to pay. Family service agencies are also a significant provider of counselling for people dealing with low to moderate mental health issues. As per their core values, this work is done from a strength-based approach, which means recognizing that people already possess many strengths and coping strategies to deal with life’s challenges. Some people have more challenges that can go beyond their current coping abilities. This can include historical trauma, racialization, disabilities, poverty, housing, and food insecurity.

Another core value of family service agencies is that meaningful relationships are fundamental to well-being. This value not only informs the type of support provided but also the understanding of the reasons that people reach out for help. Relationship conflict, feelings of loneliness, marginalization and a lack of a positive support system can impede healthy functioning. When we help people improve their relationships, it furthers their ability to deal with the challenges of life. We’re stronger together!

It is sad to lose such a valuable community service. The reason for each agency’s closure is unique and complex. It is clear, however, the challenge of competing in the current labour market is a factor. Like many non-profit agencies, family service agencies are faced with years of stagnant funding and increasing costs. This has resulted in salaries lagging. The pandemic exacerbated this, as the labour market dwindled. Many professional counsellors chose private practice, where the demands for counsellors increased, and so too, the market rates.

Family service agencies play a critical role in the system of care. Despite the funding challenges, in most communities across Ontario there is a resilient family service agency, innovating and adapting to meet the needs of the communities they serve.

Susan Somogyi Wells, MSW, RSW, MBA