In the legislative assembly, Yellowknife Centre MLA Julie Green said she “wept” when she read the latest auditor general report.

Hay River North MLA RJ Simpson is “terrified” for what the future holds, based on the lack of progress since 2014.

Avery Zingel/NNSL photo
GNWT directors and the minister responsible issued a response to the latest Office of the Auditor General Report on the territory’s child and family services in a news conference Oct. 24. From left to right, they are Sue Cullen, chief executive officer of Northwest Territories Health and Social Services, Bruce Cooper, deputy minister of the Department of Health and Social Services, Health Minister Glen Abernethy and Les Harrison, Assistant Deputy Minister.

“We should all be ashamed for being a part of a system that treats our most vulnerable this way,” said Simpson, who highlighted that 98 per cent of children in care are Indigenous.“Is this what reconciliation looks like to this government? We need to act, or move aside for those who will,” said Simpson.

The NWT’s Health and Social Services child and family services division is struggling to hire and retain staff, with a vacancy rate that consistently hovers around 25 per cent, officials said following the release of a damning report from the Office of the Auditor General (OAG).

It’s the second audit showing systemic failures in the territory’s child and family services system, and the report states services have only worsened since the 2014 report.

“After the last audit we lost people. Are we going to lose people after this audit? I sure hope not,” said Health and Social Services Minister Glen Abernethy in an Oct. 24 news conference.

The department continues to fill positions, but “people keep leaving,” he said.

The department will head up an aggressive hiring approach and look to hire local administrative staff to lift the burden of paperwork from its social workers, said Abernethy.

Following the 2014 audit, the Health and Social Services authorities “didn’t pay enough attention” to the resources behind complex changes within its department, Abernethy told media Wednesday.

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

Asked if staff are leaving because the mandate is not being met, Director of Child and Family Services Nathalie Nadeau said there are “a lot of different reasons why people leave.”

“Generally in health and social services, there is a higher retention and recruitment issue,” said Nadeau, adding this challenge is amplified in small centres.

Workers require good supervision and clinical expertise to directly improve retention, she said.

“It’s high stress, very adversarial at times and it links to a lot of stress within their personal life. It’s not one reason, it’s a series of issues,” said Nadeau.

Kam Lake MLA Kieron Testart chairs the standing committee that will review the report and said his committee will pursue “real answers” on the current state of the system, he said.

Avery Zingel/NNSL photo
MLA Kieron Testart says that as chair of the committee that will review the report, he’ll push for “real answers” on the state of the family services system.

“At this point, given who the minister is, we’re very disappointed to see that the provision of child and family services is worse off now than four years ago when the first audit was done,” said Testart. “We don’t have a different minister. It’s the same minister who was involved with the original file, (and) as a member of the standing committee on social programs at the time looked into this issue.”

“ I don’t think the progress that the minister is reporting … is really sufficient,” he said.

“(The minister) can say we’re doing something well, but when the auditor general, who spent 7,000 hours on this report, says there are major problems here, I’m always going to rely on the recommendations of the auditor general,” said Testart. “(Auditors) have no skin in the game. They’re not running for political office.”

Asked if he has faith this can be rectified, Testart said shaping up family services is a matter of political will.

‘Start investing resources’

“Ministers are fond of saying the best social program is a job. Well, I would say – you look at the failings of the NWT on child and family services – perhaps the best social program is a social program that works. We need to start investing resources,” he said.

The 2018 OAG audit shows the department is not keeping in regular required contact with at least 90 per cent of children in care.

Last week, the department tabled its annual director’s report, which shows 98 per cent of children in care are Indigenous, up from 95 per cent in 2008.

“While (the OAG) findings align with what we’ve seen in our own internal audit work, they are difficult and serve as another reminder that we are not where we need or want or must be,” said Abernethy.

The minister has directed the department to take a more “aggressive” approach to recruitment, he said.

In the GNWT it can take months to fill positions. Many new hires come in from jurisdictions that favour apprehension over the GNWT’s family-first approach and need to be trained to work in the territory, he said.

“This is a very difficult for individuals and certainly a high stress, high burnout profession … dealing with individuals who are often seen as taking away children,” said Abernethy.

The department needs to determine its staffing needs, he said.

The GNWT doesn’t get to change salary rates, but could reach out more to schools and have constantly live ads and anticipatory hiring, said Abernethy.

“There are shortages across this country of the type of people who can do this work,” he said.

There is also a direct relationship between morale and outcomes for children, said Bruce Cooper, deputy minister of the health department.

Organizations that ignore their operating culture risk not meeting their mandates, and not all of the authorities staff are trained on their systems and processes, he said.

The department currently has approximately 90 staff at various levels, with 70 staff appointed as child protection workers, said Nadeau.

The department looks at “extended foster families first in the interest of preserving a family unit,” said Nadeau.

Authorities have implemented permanent guardianship agreements – sometimes without criminal background checks and requisite studies, the audit found.

However, guardianship agreements are “recognized before the courts as appropriate solutions for families,” said Les Harrison, assistant deputy minister for the health department.

“People need to be able to trust that things will be different,” he said.

Avery Zingel

Avery Zingel is a reporter and photographer in Yellowknife, regularly covering environment, health and territorial politics. Avery is a graduate of the Carleton University School of Journalism and Political...

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