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'This is not good:' health minister commits to 'action' amid child welfare 'crisis'

The NWT’s health minister says she’s committed to taking “immediate action” to confront serious, ongoing shortfalls in the territory’s troubled child and family services division after foster caregivers and adoptive parents recently slammed a “failing,” system in "crisis" they say continues to put vulnerable kids at risk.

Health and Social Services Minister Diane Thom says department is taking foster family concerns seriously. NNSL file photo

Concrete details on how that will be accomplished, however, remain scarce.

In what she calls the “first step” in addressing the wide-ranging concerns and frustrations of foster families and adoptive in the territory — detailed in interviews with News/North earlier this month — newly-appointed Health and Social Services Minister Diane Thom will sit down with board members of the Foster Family Coalition of the NWT on Jan. 30.

The planned meeting, described by coalition executive director Tammy Roberts as a “long
overdue,” last ditch effort to have the voices of “exhausted,” unsupported and fed-up caregivers heard, comes on the heels of a scathing 27-page letter, accompanied by a host of recommendations, sent to the minister by the coalition.

Thom agreed to hear their concerns after serious grievances were aired to media.

“This is not good,” Thom told News/North in an interview Jan. 23, referencing the major shortcomings outlined by foster caregivers in the letter.

News/North recently sat down with several care providers who, sharing shocking stories of mistreatment and miscommunication, lamented prevailing gaps in oversight, accountability and support from Child and Family Services. Foster parents said they’d taken in apprehended children without being told they were carrying contagious infections. Others said they had faced verbal abuse, lies and harassment from child protection employees and social workers.

“I’m very concerned about some of the issues raised in the letter,” said Thom.

“Foster families have a right to voice their frustrations, especially if their needs aren’t being met,” she said.

“We need to take some actions and that’s what we hope to accomplish (at the meeting).”

Thom said her current focus is “rebuilding” and “re-establishing” the health department’s relationship with the foster family coalition.

Following the meeting slated for later this month, Thom said she plans on turning the concerns into “immediate action.”

In December, the Department of Health and Social Services released a report touting improvements made to the territory’s Child and Family Services division, citing the completion of 23 out of 70 “action items.” Rejecting assertions that progress had been made, foster parents later said if any improvements had been accomplished since 2018 - when Canada’s auditor general released a scathing audit into the NWT’s worsening child welfare system - they certainly weren’t seeing it on the ground level.

As minister, Thom told NNSL Media she has “directed a special focus to be put on addressing and improving things on the ground.”

Asked what those ground level directives are, Thom provided few details, but said she wants to hear about “training, respite care and reimbursement” - pressing issues highlighted by caregivers in the coalition's letter - at the Jan. 30 meeting.

While emphasizing that she’s committed to tackling problems that continue to plague the NWT’s child welfare system, Thom said improvements won’t happen overnight.

“This is going to take time,” the minister said.

“Our department has a lot of work to do.”

Meanwhile, coalition head Roberts remains hopeful that the end-of-the-month meeting will usher in real change.