Her 13-year-old foster child was missing.

Panicked, the caregiver called a child and family services employee, who told her to contact the RCMP. She did, only to be informed that the missing child report had to come from child and family services – the youth’s primary guardian.

Tammy Roberts, executive director at the Foster Family Coalition of the NWT, says foster care parents and adoption caregivers are “exhausted and unsupported,” by a child services system that’s failing children in the NWT. If any progress has been made, herself and other front-line caregivers aren’t seeing it on a day-to-day basis. photo courtesy of Tammy Roberts

Meanwhile, the missing child sat in the home of a “predator” for two days, where she was provided alcohol, says the Yellowknife-based foster parent. Child and family services workers eventually located the young teen after police “stepped up” to investigate – forcing child and family services to take the report “seriously.”

In an email to NNSL Media, RCMP stated, “in general, any missing person can be reported by anyone, at any time.” They add they’re responsible for “any criminal investigation and would defer to child and family services for investigations that fall under their mandate.”

Two years later, amid claims by the territorial government that its troubled child and family services division of the Department of Health and Social Services has improved following a scathing 2018 report from Canada’s auditor general, the caregiver – fed up and frustrated with a long-running lack of communication from the government – is still looking for answers.

She says her calls for accountability from child and family services have been met with silence – yet another failing borne from a broken system that continues to put children in care at risk.

“Our voices are not being heard. Children’s voices are not being heard,” said the woman, who asked for anonymity out of fear of retribution from government officials.

“We’re failing our future.”

She’s one of five foster care parents and adoption caregivers who detailed shocking shortfalls – past and present – in the territory’s child care system to NNSL Media earlier this week.

Their accounts stand in stark contrast to the picture being painted by the Department of Health and Social Services.

Tired, unsupported and overwhelmed, they say little has been done at the ground-level to address the staggering shortcomings identified in the auditor’s damning report, which found the deficiencies in the delivery of child and family services had only worsened since a previous scathing report in 2014.

“They’re exhausted, unsupported and they can’t do it anymore,” said Tammy Roberts, executive director at the Foster Family Coalition of the NWT, in an interview Tuesday. Roberts, a Stand Up for Kids National Award-nominee, has served at-risk children for nearly three decades offering both emergency and long-term care to over 250 foster children.

“I have never seen so many people unhappy,” she said.

‘Things have not gotten better for anybody’

Last month, Health and Social Services offered an update on child and family services’ Quality Improvement Plan, a three-year strategy tabled in August. Citing the completion of 23 out of 70 “action items,” the department touted progress on a number of fronts, from revamped minimum contact standards to bolstered resource analytics. Child and family services executive director Colette Prevost said system improvements have resulted in tangible benefits for children and families.

But for Roberts, along with many of the foster care providers NNSL Media sat down with, the report means next to nothing – families aren’t seeing any trickle-down benefits from structural changes at the top.

“Things have not gotten better for anybody on the ground. If anything it’s gotten worse,” said Roberts.

One caregiver called the light on details report a “slap in the face.”

“They’re just numbers,” she said.

On Dec. 12, days before the update was released, over a dozen foster parents and adoptive caregivers met with representatives from Health and Social Services, including Prevost, and members of Yellowknife’s health authority.

They voiced numerous ongoing concerns and frustrations. Roberts sent a 27-page summary of the meeting, along with a host of recommendations, to newly-appointed Health and Social Services Minister Diane Thom, who replaced embattled ex-minister Glen Abernethy after last year’s territorial election. Abernethy didn’t seek re-election in the fall after narrowly surviving a non-confidence vote in the wake of the 2018 audit, which concluded children under the territory’s care will remain at risk unless major changes take place.

“This is our modern day residential school crisis,” Roberts tells Thom, Shane Thompson, minister of youth, and Caitlin Cleveland, chair of the legislative assembly’s Social Development Committee, in a letter accompanying the Dec. 12 meeting summary.

The majority of children under the territory’s care are Indigenous. The disproportionate representation is rooted in the enduring impacts of colonialism, inter-generational trauma and the residential school system.

Feeling “failed” by the department, Roberts has requested to meet with Thom, Thompson and Cleveland in a “last ditch” effort to usher in real change.

Health minister responded to Roberts

The health minister responded to Roberts in a letter Tuesday, reissuing the same information conveyed in last month’s progress report without addressing the specific concerns of foster parents.

“We want to continue to work closely with Indigenous governments and organizations, our frontline staff and those accessing our services. Their feedback, as well as reviewing quantitative data, on a regular basis will show if we are on the right track, or if we need to add new or adjust existing action items,” wrote Thom.

Thom did not respond to NNSL Media’s request for comment before press deadline Thursday.

Roberts called the “generic” reply typical of the health department.

One foster parent called Thom’s response “disturbing” and “disheartening.” She was handed dozens of recommendations and heard about the realities of struggling foster families, but chose to reply with talking points, the parent said.

Cleveland, meanwhile, says she is taking the concerns of foster families seriously.

“The safety and success of our children is paramount to me and something I take very seriously,” Cleveland told NNSL Media. “I immediately shared Ms. Roberts’ letter with the entire Standing Committee on Social Development so that we can review it as a team. I expect committee will work together to follow-up with the minister and address the concerns.”

Caregivers aren’t holding their breath.

“We’re told time and time again we’re ‘part of a team.’ We are not part of the team. You’re used to carry out their mandate with little regard or care for the foster parents,” one exasperated caregiver said.

Caregivers identified many of the same problems they say continue to plague child and family services in the NWT, from a general lack of support, oversight and accountability to persisting personnel problems. From obtaining essential items like clothing for foster kids to accessing crucial counselling, they say the support simply hasn’t been there.

On top of that, many said their foster children, both in temporary and permanent care, are rarely seen by their assigned social workers. Parents say they’re left to do most of the leg work, including having to do their own digging to find out basic information about their foster child, from health conditions, birthdays – even last names.

“You’ve got to navigate your own way around the system to work with the system,” said one foster parent.

A caregiver said he sent an apprehended child to school with lunch, only to find out they were allergic to what they’d packed. Another parent said she took in three children for an emergency placement, later learning all had a contagious infection. A basic health check wasn’t conducted, they said. The incident pushed the person to pull out of foster care altogether, appalled that the department had put their family at risk.

Home inspections often overlooked

Required home inspections, many caregivers said, were often overlooked – a major problem highlighted in the 2018 audit.

One foster parent described the office of the child and family services as having a “poisonous atmosphere,” part of the reason there is such a high turnover rate for social workers.

While the caregivers sympathized with the overburdened workload of social workers, several pointed to issues with certain employees. Some said they’d been harassed and lied to. According to Roberts’ letter, crafted from concerns raised at last month’s meeting, foster caregivers “experience verbal abuse,” from child protection workers. Many are afraid to report abuse, fearing children in their care will be taken from them in retaliation, according to the letter. One parent said they “terrified” of speaking to media for that reason. Another said they had to go as far as blocking a worker’s phone number.

One caregiver said misconduct reports often result in employees simply being reassigned elsewhere.

“They’re just shuffling the mess around without holding anyone accountable. There’s no accountability. None,” said the caregiver.

Heart-wrenching’ loss for adoptive dad

One adoptive father rearranged his entire life around the long-awaited arrival of an adopted baby. He says he knew there was a chance a relative would step in and adopt the baby before the process was complete, but that workers said there was only a slight possibility of that happening.

Then it happened – two days after he brought the baby home.

“One day you get a call saying a relative has been found and then the baby is gone,” he said.

“It was heart-wrenching. Brutal.”

He was left without any supports – no offers for counselling; no one offering to discuss what happened.

Child sent back to addicted mom

A foster parent remembers the night she received a call from child and family services: a young child, recently apprehended from home after her mother admitted to using illegal drugs, needed care.

Already juggling several foster children at her home, the woman couldn’t take in any more children.

The child was then sent back to her mother’s home – under 24 hours after being apprehended.

“They just returned the child – back to the mother who was using,” the caregiver said.

Her attempts to follow up on the case have not been accommodated by child and family services, she said.

It’s not the first time she’s heard little to nothing from the health and social services department. The caregiver showed NNSL Media more than 40 pages of emails related to just one incident – mostly printouts of her unsuccessful attempts to get a meaningful response from child and family services.

Number of foster families plummet

The number of foster families in the NWT has dropped sharply over the last decade – an illustration of the territory’s issues with retaining and recruiting caregivers.

The number of foster families plummeted from 230 in 2011 to 156 in July of 2019, according to Foster Family Coalition of the NWT executive director Tammy Roberts.

Roberts and the Department of Health and Social Services teamed up last year in an effort to attract more foster families and caregivers, releasing a short film about the territory’s needs.

Foster parents say they want increased checks and balances, more training for social workers, and a better way of sharing and centralizing basic information. If that doesn’t happen, children will continue to be hurt by a confusing and convoluted system, they say.

Most of all, they just want to be heard for the sake of the children in their care, whose well-being is the reason they became foster parents in the first place.

Those calls for change are echoed in the long list of recommendations presented to Thom by the Foster Family Coalition of the NWT. The recommendations range from calls to fix the territory’s “broken” adoption system to the need to establish a youth and child advocate in the NWT.

“If we’re ever going to make change now is the time to do it. But it has to be change on the ground,” Roberts told NNSL Media.

“Because the kids are worth it. The kids are worth it.”

Fact file: foster care in the NWT

• In 2018, 66 per cent of foster families were not properly screened.

• Health and social service authorities in the NWT did not maintain the required regular contact with 90 per cent of children placed in foster care in 2018, a 30 per cent jump from 2014.

• The 2018 report from Canada’s auditor general also found 89 per cent of foster families did not receive a required annual review to ensure quality care.

• In 2014, workers did not meet minimum requirements in 59 per cent of cases. That spiked to 88 per cent in 2018.

• Child in permanent care will move homes an average of 12 times.

• In 2016, three children were moved five or more times, and one child in care was moved over 20 times.

Brendan Burke

As the Yellowknifer’s crime reporter, it’s my job to keep readers up to speed on all-things “cops and courts” related. From house fires and homicides to courtroom clashes, it’s my responsibility...

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