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Auditor general renews scorn on family services

The territory's child and family services system got a failing grade last time it was reviewed in 2014 but it is even worse now, says a new damning report from the Auditor General of Canada.

Children are transferred to family guardians without basic checks, including home studies, criminal record and family background checks or in-person interviews.

Avery Zingel/NNSL photo                                                                                                                                                                                                                        The NWT's child and family services are worse off than they were in 2014, when it was last reviewed. Children in care are placed in homes where required interviews and criminal record checks are not completed, said Glenn Wheeler, principal director on the audit, at an Oct. 24 news conference.

Meanwhile, Health and Social Services authorities tasked with protecting children fails to maintain regular contact with children placed in care nearly 90 per cent of the time, according to the report.

In one of the files reviewed, a guardian who authorities did not screen was later charged with assaulting the child. The child was subsequently placed in another guardianship home without screening.

Health and Social Services (HSS) authorities do not “adequately screen” the majority of foster homes before placing children, nor do they conduct annual reviews to ensure children are well cared for, the report states.

Health authorities placed 63 per cent of children without performing basic checks and conducted even fewer required screenings on foster homes this year (66 per cent) than in 2014 (69 per cent). It only conducted annual reviews on 11 per cent of homes, the report states.

Over the past decade, authorities placed an average of 1,000 children per year under protection or prevention services under the Child and Family Services Act.

The 2014 report identified “serious deficiencies” in child and family services in the NWT.

It made sweeping recommendations, many of which the government said it was committed to fix.

However, the GNWT's efforts to introduce “complex” changes into an “overburdened system” continue to leave children vulnerable, the report states.

“We determined that many of the services provided to children and families in the NWT that we examined were in fact worse than when we examined them in 2014,” said Glenn Wheeler, principal director of the audit, speaking on behalf of the Auditor General in Yellowknife.

“We are deeply concerned by the findings in this audit,” said Wheeler, urging the Department of Health and Social Services and the territories' health and social services authorities that administer child and family services to work together to provide better services.

“Children will remain at risk until they make the changes they said were critical, and that they committed to making.”

According to the report, health authorities failed to ensure parents kept their commitments under plan-of-care agreements for their children. They also failed to maintain the minimum level of contact in 88 per cent of cases. The auditor general put that figure at 60 per cent in the 2014 audit.

The auditors found authorities even failed to conduct interviews with children who were in high-risk cases. They also allowed children to stay in plans of care when the conditions were not being met.

The health department is also failing children placed in temporary and permanent care. One child in the foster system was moved at least 20 times – a factor which is known to have “serious negative effects on children's well-being,” the audit said.

Children in permanent care were moved into different homes 12 times on average, according to the report.

Four years ago, the auditor general found “serious, long-standing deficiencies” in services for children and families, and that failures in the system “put children's safety at risk and failed to support their best interests and well-being.”

The changes were poorly implemented and did not have sufficient resources to be instituted, producing worse services for children and families, the report states.

Children will be at risk until HSS and authorities “make the changes they said were critical, and that they committed to making,” the report states.

The audit found that when the authorities decided a child might be unsafe, they usually responded within 24 hours or five days, depending on the decision.

But in some cases, they didn't respond to reported child protection concerns at all.

Minister wants vacancies filled, new positions in GNWT budget

Avery Zingel/NNSL photo
Minister Glen Abernethy says the family services system must be designed to outlast individual employees. Social work is a high turnover profession, he told reporters Oct. 23.

The audit findings are consistent with a report tabled last week by the Department of Health and Social Services, said Minister Glen Abernethy.

Asked why criminal records checks aren't being done, Abernethy said he couldn't pinpoint why but that he's already asked the department to pay closer attention to this requirement.

"It could be resources, it could be the demands of time. I just don't know, but it's an area that's very concerning as are the foster family checks and other things identified in the report," he said.

"We are going to make those changes," said Abernethy.

The department is pitching the need for additional resources for this coming budget but won't release the number of positions it is looking for.

They are looking to increase positions in some of the communities where the number of children in care is the highest, said Abernethy.

The department must also fill existing vacancies, he said.

There is not a single employee in the department who was employed there four years ago, he said.

Social work is a "high burnout" job with heavy turnaround, said Abernethy.

"We need to design systems that survive individuals ... even when one of our key employees leaves. I have stressed that that has to be a part of the plan," he said.