A scathing report by the Auditor General on the state of child and family services in the Northwest Territories has revealed longstanding gaps in services that have left at-risk youth in unsafe, unscreened situations of neglect and abuse.
The report, released last week, reviewed a sample of 46 of the approximate 1,000 case files for youth in care in the NWT, over 90 per cent of which are Aboriginal. Those files included youth receiving services in the home and in foster care.
Its findings showed inadequacy across the board in terms of care for at-risk youth and accountability within the department of Health and Social Services.
“We concluded that the Department of Health and Social Services and the Health and Social Services authorities are not adequately meeting their key responsibilities for the protection and well-being of children, youth and their families,” the report stated, indicating that despite previous audits, nothing had changed.
“As far back as the year 2000, recommendations were made to the Department to address weaknesses in the areas of accountability, resource allocations to regional authorities, and guidance and tools to support service delivery. Our audit found that these same issues persist and are critical shortcomings in the child and family services system that affect meeting key responsibilities for children, youth, and families.”
Among major concerns, the auditors found that a startling two thirds – 69 per cent – of foster homes in the NWT had not been screened for safety, and in 81 per cent of foster care home files, annual reviews were not done, regardless of whether or not initial screening had taken place, meaning children were put in danger.
“This resulted in the placement of some children in inappropriate or unsafe situations. In two cases we reviewed, children had been placed in homes where the required screening had not occurred and where there were subsequent allegations of neglect and physical abuse. Both foster care homes were closed after these allegations arose.”
Of the 46 files reviewed, 17 were children in temporary or permanent foster care. In 59 per cent of those files, authorities did not maintain regular contact with children. Required case reviews were not done for any of the children in care.
“This means that there was limited assessment of the children’s health and overall well-being of foster families’ capacity to care for the children and the quality of care they were receiving,” the audit stated.
Although regional authorities responded to a high majority of concerns regarding child protection within the required 24-hour period, key steps to the investigations weren’t followed to determine if the children were safe and follow-up procedures were rarely taken.
Some 28 per cent of files included reports of concerns about children needing protection that had not been investigated at all. Sixty-six per cent of those cases where steps were not followed went on to show youth in need of protection.
Investigations also did not include assessments of long-term risks for youth because proper tools were not given to child protection workers. In most cases, workers closed files after concluding immediate safety was not compromised, despite 59 per cent of those cases leading to additional concerns warranting protection with some extreme cases requiring medical attention.
Over half of plan-of-care agreements signed between authorities and families were not monitored to see if their provisions were met and regular contact with families had not been maintained.
In 76 per cent of those cases, further child protection concerns arose after agreements had been signed.
Other concerns raised by the audit were directed at internal monitoring mechanisms for measuring required monetary and human resources, the development of standards and guidelines for workers, and the need for annual reports to be completed.
Health and Social Services Minister Glen Abernethy admitted there is much work to be done in improving the situation in the NWT for families and children in need of support.
“This is a serious concern for all of us,” Abernethy said in the Legislature Wednesday. “ I care deeply about ensuring that we take aggressive action to improve our supports to children and families.”
The department accepted all of the Auditor General’s recommendations and indicated that work has begun on several fronts, based on previous recommendations and an internal study on services in the territory.
Abernethy also pointed to new government initiatives that he believes will help to alleviate the poverty and addictions at the root of most child protection issues, which include the updated Early Childhood Development Framework, the extension of the Healthy Families program across the territory and movements on addictions treatment, which includes increasing on-the-land healing options.
As well, the new Aboriginal Health and Community Wellness division of the department is working on community wellness strategies right now, he added.
“Taken together, all these initiatives will help us to reach our ultimate goal of ensuring that no child needs to take advantage of child protection services. But we know that day is a long way off,” Abernethy said, adding that he plans to bring forward legislation to improve accountability.
“Since becoming minister four months ago, I have directed the department to take immediate action to designate chief executive officers of authorities as assistant directors of child and family services under the act,” he said. “This appointment will make them directly responsible for ensuring that our system does not drop the ball on any child welfare case.”