Frustrated foster caregivers, continuing their call for swift government action to fix a failing and “broken” child welfare system, brought their concerns straight to Premier Caroline Cochrane Monday night.
Half-a-dozen foster parents sat down with Cochrane at a Range Lake constituency meeting hosted by the premier at Tim Hortons.
The meeting was open to questions and concerns from all constituents. But ongoing oversight and accountability issues plaguing the territory’s beleaguered child and family services system — detailed to media in recent weeks by exhausted and “unsupported” caregivers — dominated the evening’s discourse.
“When a house burns down, do you start rebuilding from the roof? No, you start at the very bottom. That’s not happening here,” an exasperated foster parent told Cochrane, alluding to attempts from the Department of Health and Social Services to improve its child services division in the wake of a damning 2018 federal audit.
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Caregivers, joined by Foster Family Coalition of the NWT executive director Tammy Roberts, raised a number of issues with Cochrane, from a lack of access to critical trauma counselling for children in care to a need to better support for youth who are aging out of the system.
These concerns and more were outlined in a 27-page letter, accompanied by a host of recommendations, sent to Health and Social Services Minister Diane Thom late last year. After initially replying with an ill-received, four-line response, Thom agreed to sit down with coalition board members Jan. 30.
Challenging a recent report from the department touting progress since the audit, several foster caregivers told Yellowknifer improvements on a ground level haven’t been made — child services workers still aren’t returning emails; parents continue to take in children without receiving basic health information beforehand; limitations to trauma counselling persist and support is scarce and children remain at risk.
As premier, Cochrane said she’s emphasized to MLAs the importance of working with community members. For newly-appointed Health Minister Diane Thom, that means listening to the concerns of foster caregivers on a regular basis, Cochrane said.
“Tell us what you want to see in the next four years,” she said, urging foster caregivers to present concise and “concrete” priorities to Thom when both sides meet on Thursday.
“I can’t change the world in a day,” said Cochrane, who has a background in social work.
“It would be inappropriate for us a government to say we have all the answers. We don’t.”
Asked by a foster parent whether or not new funding for the health department’s child and family services division over the next few years, Cochrane wasn’t exactly optimistic.
“There’s not a lot of money out there,” the premier replied, citing the territory’s waning mining industry and a gloomy 10-year economic outlook.
One caregiver in attendance challenged Cochrane.
“I get the economy is bad, but money has to be moved around because it’s kids. It’s vulnerable kids. We’re putting kids at risk,” they said.
Cochrane said some “tough” funding choices will have to be made when MLAs sit down to determine how resources are best allocated.
“It’s hard to say where the money will go,” Cochrane later told Yelllowknifer. “The next step for ministers will be sitting down together to decide where best to put the funding so that we can meet our mandate commitments.”
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Cochrane said her biggest takeaway from Monday’s meeting was that foster caregivers “want to be heard.”
“They want to develop a positive relationship with our government and actually have a voice in what’s happening,” she said.
While Cochrane said Thom is actively engaging with the coalition, she stressed that fundamental changes to the territory’s welfare system won’t happen overnight.
“We’re not going to solve world peace in four years,” Cochrane told Yellowknifer. “We’re not going to get all the children in care provided proper services in four years. I just know that.”
Facing an uphill battle, Cochrane said she’s going to push to have meetings between the minister - or department officials - and foster families or the coalition every six months.
A foster caregiver in attendance Monday evening, who asked not to be identified, said she welcomes the idea.
“Then the ideas will be new and the complaints will be fresh; (the department) wouldn’t be able to say they don’t know what’s going on,” she said. The caregiver said the move would mark a significant departure from the last government’s “old boy’s club,” where complaints and requests for meetings often fell on deaf ears.
Asked what she gained from Monday’s meeting, the woman replied “hope.”
(Cochrane) is telling us the way it is. She needs solutions, she needs help and she’s willing to listen. We never had that.”
The caregiver is now more optimistic heading into this week’s meeting with Thom.
“I feel like I can say what I need to say and not be persecuted.”