Caseworker's murder sparks former Wood's Homes employee to speak out
CALGARY — The killing of a Calgary caseworker is compelling others to speak out about the dangers support workers face while serving vulnerable populations.
Deborah Onwu's death on Friday while caring for youth at a Wood’s Homes assisted living facility hits close to home for Natasha Ernst, who said she worked for the same company from 2013 to 2016 and thinks there needs to more protection for workers.
“My heart sunk and I felt really bad, but it didn't surprise me, unfortunately,” said Ernst.
“I just felt really sick to my stomach and it really brought me back to a place when I worked there and how that could have been me, it could have been any of my coworkers.”
Onwu, 47, was stabbed to death at a Wood's Homes facility in southwest Calgary on Oct. 25.
Brandon Jacob Spencer Newman, 18, is charged with second-degree murder.
Lou Arab with the Canadian Union of Public Employees, the union for Wood's Homes staff, said they have been raising concerns for some time.
“Particularly when it comes to staffing levels in the evening hours. On the night of her death, Ms. Onwu was dealing with a client with complex mental health needs and a history of violence,” he said.
“It is our understanding that the client had a classification of needing at least a ‘two-to-one’ ratio of care. Our investigation has uncovered the fact Ms. Onwu was dealing with that client alone, while other staff were on a different floor dealing with other clients.”
Ernst says she often worked alone, caring for up to eight youth at a time.
“If you have eight youth, all in crisis at once, with one person, that's just a storm for unsafe situations, not only for staff but other youth,” she said, adding many careworkers feel compelled to continue despite the challenges.
She said she also faced death threats and broke her hand blocking a punch from a youth but adds many care workers felt compelled to continue despite the challenges.
“Your heart is in it and once you get in there working with these kids, it's hard to leave because it feels like you would be walking out on your family.”
Wood’s Homes spokesperson Sylvia MacIver said they are working with staff to addess the issues stemming from Onwu’s death.
“We are fully co-operating with investigations under way by both Occupational Health and Safety and Calgary Police Services,” she said.
“Our thoughts are with the family of Debbie Onwu, and our Wood’s Homes family in the midst of this tragedy.”
Alberta Labour and Immigration spokesperson Brittany Baltimore, said that agency inspected six worksite operated by Wood’s Homes since 2017.
“None of these inspections took place at the location of this incident. These inspections resulted in the issuing of four orders, including one related to the development of a plan to prevent violence at the work site,” she said.
“All of these orders were complied with.”
Ernst says Onwu's death encouraged her to speak out for the first time.
“The government needs to step in, Occupational Health and Safety needs to step in,” she said.
“I feel if it's going to save someone else's life then it's 100 per cent worth it.”
Onwu's family, friends, church and the local Nigerian Community are raising money for her funeral.