In response to increasing criticisms of foster care in the Northwest Territories, the GNWT has tabled a new program to improve the system in a way it says is beneficial not only to children, but also to their families.
Health and Social Services Minister Glen Abernethy introduced the Action Plan to Transform Child and Family Services to the Legislative Assembly on Oct. 16, a new strategy to improve the child welfare system based on over 100 recommendations made by the Auditor General as well as the territorial Standing Committees on Government Operations and Social Programs.
At the heart of the new programming is the goal of working with families to improve their situations, rather than removing children from their homes and placing them in foster care.
“Every child has the right to a permanent family for as long as possible and that is not happening for a number of children that we currently have under our care,” said Andy Langford, director of child and family services with the department.
“The preference is always to have a permanent placement with their real parents. The only way we’re going to be able to accomplish that is by transforming how we do child protection services and assure that we give the birth parents the supports and services they need in order to be able to keep their children safe.”
As of August, there were 147 children from the NWT up to the age of 18 in foster care.
Easing processes for children and families
Out of all of the directives initiated by the new act, Langford singled out new methods of home assessment as one of the most important steps to success, categorized as “differential response.”
“Abuse requires immediate intervention because the impact of abuse is immediate and devastating,” Langford said. “Neglect on the other hand doesn’t have such an immediate impact but it has a just as devastating – if not a more devastating – impact in the longer term.”
New assessment tools that will determine what makes a case of abuse versus neglect are in the works. In cases of child neglect, Langford said, homes will be assessed for their strengths and weaknesses rather than immediately investigated, creating a more equal power dynamic between families and social workers.
Amendments have been made to the amount of time children can spend as temporary wards of the state. Children up to 5 years old must have a permanency decision made within one year; by 18 months for children six to 11; and for children between 12 and 18, that period is two years.
Whereas before children 16 and up could not access child welfare services for the first time, new rules will allow wards between the ages to 16 to 23 to voluntarily access services and counselling.
Increased organization and assessment
Langford and his collaborators would like to see the system become centralized within the next five years, but for the interim, strategies have been created to better assess the work being done in the NWT’s seven regions.
“Regional health and social services authorities will be reporting performance reports on a quarterly basis and we will also be doing annual compliance audits,” Langford said.
These documents will include information on how many reports of child abuse and neglect regions receive on a monthly basis, as well as the number of investigations initiated and their timelines. They will also include quarterly reports on the number of individual care plans enacted and ongoing. Finally, they will document the number of children receiving child and family services and information on foster home inspections and operations.
New statutory training for social workers and their managers has also been introduced, along with plans to create a new child and family services information management system, an initiative that recently received $3 million in funding from the territorial government.
Finally, a greater focus on working with Aboriginal governments has been made a priority, especially as more communities turn to self-governance. Whenever an Aboriginal child is taken into custody, the local government must now be made aware of the apprehension.
A national problem
“I sat down with directors of child welfare from jurisdictions across the country. As a system – not just in the Territories, this is country wide – we need to step back and consider how to do the business of childcare and child protection,” Lanford said.
“In my view, we are positioned to actually succeed at making substantive change to these program areas,” he said, noting that other government initiatives addressing poverty and substance abuse will help to build stronger families.
“I don’t see us having been this well positioned in my entire duration with the public service and that spans 30 years,” he said.1 comment