Skip to content

Child services improving after scathing audit: GNWT

1301child61 From left to right, the children of Kam Lake MLA Caitlin Cleveland and Minister Caroline Wawzonek, Jackson Bowden, 13, Owen Bowden, 9, Finnegan Gostlin, 5, Dalyn Bowden, 5, Savannah Gostlin, 7. Photo Courtesy of Caitlin Cleveland

A damning 2018 report from Canada's Auditor General found problems with child protective services in the NWT had only worsened since an audit conducted four years earlier.

Now, the territory's health department says steps have been taken to tackle critical issues raised in the review, including serious monitoring gaps for children under the territory's care.

According to a quarterly progress report released late last month, of the 70 "action items" identified in the Child and Family Services System's Quality Improvement Plan, a three-year strategy tabled in August, 23 have been implemented. Forty-seven objectives are "on track" to be completed, according to the department.

Focusing on system improvements, efficient resource distribution and staff retention while fostering "cultural safety and respect," the objectives are, in part, a response to the auditor general's highly critical 2018 report, says Child and Family Services executive director Colette Prevost.

The plan also addresses recommendations made by Indigenous governments, Child and Family Services staff, Foster Family Coalition of the NWT and key stakeholders, Prevost told News/North in a recent interview.

"It's a very ambitious plan," she said.

The scathing 2018 review, a follow-up to an audit released in 2014, concluded the Department of Health and Social Services and its authorities failed to meet key responsibilities in ensuring the protection and well-being of children and their families in the territory.

'Overburdened system'

Serious shortcomings in the delivery of child and family services, flagged in 2014, only worsened during the four-year stretch between the audits, the review revealed.
Health and social service authorities did not maintain the required regular contact with nearly 90 per cent of children placed in foster care – an increase of about 30 per cent from 2014.

Major shortfalls in placement screenings were also identified in the review.

Health and Social Services authorities did not adequately screen the majority of foster homes where children were being placed, and 14 out of 22 children were placed in permanent guardianship without basic background checks, including criminal record checks.

The department, dealing with an already "overburdened" system, struggled to adopt recommendations made by the auditor general in 2014, the audit found.

Lead auditor Glenn Wheeler – "deeply disappointed" in the findings – urged the territory to make crucial changes to confront systemic shortcomings highlighted in the report. Until those gaps were addressed and closed, children remained at risk in the NWT, the audit concluded.

The department says contact standards were updated in November to address monitoring issues highlighted in the audit. According to Prevost, that means staff are now obligated to see children and engage with families based on "leading practices," to ensure the needs of children are met.

Asked to provide real-world examples of how these changes have improved the well-being of children under the territory's care, Prevost said revamped required contact standards are working to ensure children in care are being engaged with by social workers in a way that's more responsive to their needs.

Prevost said progress has been made in confronting staffing and resource challenges unique to the North, where there is an "ebb and flow" of resource requirements in different regions at different times. The department says a project plan has been developed to "conduct ongoing assessments of what the optimal skill mix, workload, and caseloads are for Child and Family Services to ensure a fair and equitable distribution of resources across all regions."

To make sure limited resources are being distributed across the territory effectively and efficiently, Prevost said the department has analyzed where and in what capacity staff are most needed.

"We didn't have that before. Now the system is able to deploy the resources it has in a much more informed way, in a way that's going to be much more responsive to community needs," said Prevost.

Following the Auditor General of Canada's 2014 review, the Department of Health and Social Services accepted 11 recommendations, yet went on to receive a worse grade from the federal government four years later. In 2018, the department again accepted 11 recommendations made in the audit.

'Tall order'

Asked how NWT residents can be reassured things will be different this time around, when certain areas in the delivery of child and family services worsened following the auditor general's 2014 report, Prevost said there's an "infusion of resources," not present in the child welfare system before.

The GNWT invested $3.3 million to add child and family services positions to meet the objectives outlined in the improvement plan.

"Having the training capacity, the recruitment, the foster care resources, and the standards of practice all move in a synergy so that we're able to have a system that's much more equipped to be responsive to the needs of children in their respective communities without having to leave their communities," said Prevost.

"But that's a tall order. That's why the plan is a three-year strategy."