There is no denying that the NWT department of Health and Social Services is failing to support families and protect children, deputy minister Debbie Delancey voiced again last week following meetings on a recent report by the auditor general exposing major gaps in services.
Delancey and other departmental staff met with MLAs and representatives of the auditor general’s office last week in Yellowknife to go over the long list of recommendations made in March meant to address critical problems with child protection and system-wide accountability in the NWT.
Those problems include a lack of follow-up by child protection workers on case files, a high percentage of unscreened foster homes and a lack of department-wide reporting, among other key measures meant to prevent kids from falling through the cracks – some of which were known about for years.
Sahtu MLA Norman Yakeleya said he was “appalled” at what he heard at the meetings about government inaction on the issues, likening the current child protection system to an extension of the “scoop” that accompanied Canada’s residential schools legacy, despite good intentions.
“We continue to see that this is another form of a long, sad policy of removing Aboriginal children…from their homes, no different than what was done in the ‘40s, ‘50s and ‘60s – and ‘70s – of the residential school era,” he told The Journal.
“We did a makeover and called it child and family services.”
Seriousness of crisis wasn’t known
While Delancey said the department was “not surprised” to learn of the systemic shortcomings, adding that many improvements have been in the works since the last legislative assembly when an internal review of child and family services was done, she noted the seriousness of many of the findings in the March report were not fully known previously.
“What I think is important is to note that some of the findings and conclusions in the current auditor general’s report were not raised in the previous report by the 16th Legislative Assembly,” she said.
“Although we knew the act was out of date, we knew there were pressures, we knew there were problems, some of the actual file audits they did that showed, for example, child protection workers not doing the adequate follow-up on foster care homes or not doing followup on implementing a plan of care agreement, or not doing the appropriate interviews with children, that was fairly new information.”
Some of that information had begun to come to light over the past year and a half through internal audits, Delancey said. Other gaps in the accountability framework, identified by the auditor general in both the recent report and one made in 2011, are in the process of being solved.
Short-term fixes coming first
While the system as a whole needs major upgrades, Delancey said the alarming findings about the state of child protection in the NWT have pushed the department to find short-term solutions for the immediate crisis in the interim.
“We have to do the short-term fixes in the way we’re administering the system today, because clearly it’s failing children, but it’s more important that we make this paradigm shift where we’re supporting families to keep kids in their homes rather than having them come into care,” she said.
To start, the department will be designating the CEOs of each regional health authority to oversee child and family services as an assistant director – a measure that will make reporting and accountability much simpler and more effective. That will come this summer after each has received the necessary training.
In addition, the information system is being updated to include compliance monitoring: digital red flags that will remind protection workers to do their follow-ups and report to supervisors when work is not being done.
Because that will take time to build, Delancey said in the meantime the department is enforcing a system of quarterly reporting to begin in September.
Keeping children in their homes
Yakeleya said he wants to see more ways that communities and Aboriginal governments can work with the department to keep children – especially of Aboriginal families – in their homes.
“I’d like to see Aboriginal people in the communities working closely with the families, where they can do budgeting, family work, counselling – work with the families, keep the children with the families,” he said.
In the NWT, the vast majority of children in foster care are apprehended in cases of neglect, often due to a combination of drug or alcohol addictions and poverty. Most of those are Aboriginal.
Delancey said the department recognizes the difference between children who are at risk due to outright abuse versus those at risk due to neglect, and needs to develop new ways of addressing that difference.
“The idea is we can’t treat all those situations the same. We need to find a way…to work with families so that instead of taking children out of those homes, you build on the family’s strengths – a more supportive approach to families at risk, the idea being to create a circle around the family so the kid is not at risk. It requires a shift in thinking.”
Whether that means new money or new ways of using money, Delancey said the department doesn’t know yet. One idea is to create a sort of a “family preservation worker,” like that mentioned by Yakeleya, who may not be a GNWT employee but part of an NGO or interagency.
Additionally, the department plans to continue working with communities to establish child and family services committees across the territory. While that initiative has failed, thus far, Delancey said it’s time to go back to the drawing board and find ways each community and Aboriginal government wants to and can be involved in supporting families.
“First of all, in a small community, that’s a really tough role to play – in taking away someone’s child. So I think what we need to do, and we need to change the legislation or initially work outside the legislation…is to work at the community level and say, ‘Where do you want to be involved in supporting families? Let’s work together.’”