Last spring in a report to the NWT Legislature, the department of Health and Social Services was hammered by the Auditor General for how poorly it looks after the welfare of children. The report lists 83 points of contention. Monitoring systems, assessment methodology, approaches to training and staffing, delivery systems and so on, were scrutinized and criticized, and the department is now busy trying to fix them.
Based on the GNWT’s track record, it’s likely that most of those 83 problems will remain and 10 or so years down the road, yet another scathing report will be forthcoming.
The most damning aspect of the denunciation by the Auditor General is that it is not the first such extreme criticism. For decades, different superintendents of child welfare have stood before committees of the legislature, judges of the courts and auditors, abashed and ashamed, admitting to inadequate performance. Each time, promises were made that issues would be addressed and shortcomings fixed. But they never adequately are.
The October 2010 Report on the Review of the Child and Family Services Act noted many of the issues in this year’s Auditor General’s rant. The same problems were identified and solutions offered, yet here we are four years later with so much still wrong. It is a travesty, yet at the same time baffling, for concerted efforts were made.
Many of the people involved in the creation of that 2010 report are the same ones dealing with the matter now, including Glen Abernethy, the current minister of Health and Social Services, and most of the MLAs who are members of the current NWT Legislature Standing Committee on Social Programs. Why then has there been so little tangible success? The minister and deputy minister of the department are long-term Northerners who know and understand the people, culture and needs. They, as well as all the MLAs and other leaders involved, are caring, competent people, dedicated to making things right for NWT children. In spite of that, solutions evade.
The causal factors of child neglect are many, but can mostly be boiled down to poverty and alcohol abuse, often both at the same time. Broken families result. Children are victims, almost all from Aboriginal families.
The current approach is to offer up womens’ shelters where mothers can take children to be temporarily free from fear; or if both parents are the problem, the children are apprehend into “care” to become wards of the government, living out their childhood in foster homes, group homes or institutions.
Ending poverty and alcohol abuse has to be part of a solution, but unfortunately there will always be neglected children. The other side of it then is how best to deal with those kids. Taking them away from their biological families, cutting them off from extended kinship and community connections, and at the same time isolating them from their culture, is wrong.
It is interesting that no past reports on how child neglect is handled have involved case studies of adults who became wards of the government as children, interviewing them to find out what their lives are like today. That needs to be done. The findings would be telling, if not heartbreaking. Frustration and resentment over what happened to their shattered lives never goes away.
No matter how much the government system is tweaked and refined, even if every one of the Auditor General’s recommendations were followed, it would still fail if the strategy is to take kids from their families. That will always be a foreign solution, rooted in the south, evolved from a similar mentality as residential schools.
If you haven’t already, please read the interview in last week’s Northern Journal with former NWT social worker Arlene Hache. Similar points were made by Pauline Roche, president of the NWT Native Women’s Association last spring after the release of the Auditor General’s report. They both say, generally, that extended families and communities must be in charge of child and family services if that system is to be truly effective at supporting families.
A community-based solution that involves First Nation governments and communities and engages extended families is key. They need to be involved and empowered in an effort to fix those broken homes.
There is no good way to tweak and improve the way things are done now. Our leaders must be courageous in their overhaul. Throw out the manual and write a new one that is holistic, community-based and protects children without destroying their all-important connections to family and culture.
Involving local governments, communities and extended families as intervenors in broken homes will be the only way to succeed at ending the cycles of poverty and alcohol abuse – working with the problem at its source in a constructive, connected way where no government program could ever succeed.