Yellowknife North candidates debating child and family care at an all-candidates forum Tuesday night were praised by the monitor after an at times emotional discussion touching on one of the territory’s most troubling stories of 2018.
Moderator and former Range Lake MLA Daryl Dolynny complimented all three candidates at the Open NWT-hosted forum, saying “that was probably one of the best rounds of child and family services that I think I have heard in a long time.
Dolynny was moderating questions submitted to the panel through the YkDebates.ca website.
A family and child services question came midway through the debate between incumbent MLA Cory Vanthuyne, and challengers Rylund Johnson and Jan Vallillee. The question asked whether or not the Department of Health and Social Services was on “the right path” to fixing problems in the department’s family and children services division following a damning 2018 auditor’s general report that found if anything, children in foster care were at even greater risk than in 2014, when the division was also severely criticized.
The questioner pointed out that none of the Yk North candidates had prioritized child and family services in their platforms.
Candidate Jan Vallillee, an applications support worker with the Northwest Territories Health and Social Services Authority, said she supports hiring more child and family services care workers and supports the department’s aim to hire 31 staff members for fieldwork. However, she said it is important those workers are prepared for the Northern setting where they are expected to work. Only then will there be an improvement in the number of cases before the GNWT, she said.
“We have a lot of people who come up with medical social degrees and are thrown into a culture that they not overly familiar with,” she said, noting the importance of having staff members connected to the communities they work in.
“When we bring child and family services workers to the North there has to be some cultural orientation in depth so they actually understand the history. You have to bring out the truth and reconciliation and it has to be in place for these people.”
Johnson agreed there is a continuous revolving door of social workers from the south who are not prepared for the needs of the North. He is advocating for a child youth advocate in every NWT community and is calling for the implementation of universal child care in order to ensure vulnerable children are protected and to ensure healthy childhood development through the education system.
“I recognize that social work is a specialty and a skill and we need educated people, but every time we can have someone in a community who is willing to take one of those positions, willing to get on-the-job training and willing to be trained by the Department of Health and Social Services –that that person is extremely valuable,” he said. “They will stay there and (a community will) not go through 10 southerners getting thrown into a cultural situation which is beyond complex. There is so much trauma to deal with.”
Incumbent MLA Vanthuyne admitted the auditor general report’s findings were highly “sensitive” when it was revealed last autumn.
His voice cracked with emotion a few times when he noted his frustration with how the government appears hopelessly bureaucratic in its approach and unable to address the frontline needs on the ground. He committed to working “tirelessly” to protect the most vulnerable among NWT’s families and children who are in care.
“These are among the most vulnerable people in our society and I think we absolutely need to be doing a much better job,” he said.
Vanthuyne said it is very important that family and child care workers that are hired aren’t “over-burdened …with administration and paperwork” and are doing the frontline work they are supposed to do. Most important, they have to be done at “the community level,” he said.
“We gotta make sure that this time around we are getting the resources on the ground where they are much needed and we need to see that the number of kids in our care eventually be where they don’t have to be in our care anymore,” he said. “When they need us, we just cannot be failing them. We absolutely need to put a new plan together that makes sure they get the qualified attention they need.”
Foster Family Coalition of the NWT
Tami Roberts, executive director of the Foster Family Coalition NWT, said she wasn’t aware of the discussion and that the organization hadn’t been able to send a representative to the event. However, she said the organization is trying to keep the issue of child and family services a high priority among candidates.
“We are kind of feeling out candidates right now and I want to make sure this issue stays on the table,” said Roberts. “That is our main goal.”
All 58 who are running for office have received the following questions:
1) As a Member of the 19th Legislative Assembly, will you work to ensure the territorial government implements changes in response to the 2018 Auditor General’s Report on the Child & Family Services in the NWT during the first year of the 19th Legislative Assembly?
2) Please state the actions that you will take in the 19th Legislative Assembly that will improve the welfare of children and youth in care in the territory.
3) How will you ensure that the voices of children, youth, foster caregivers, adoptive families, and biological families involved with Health and Social Services are heard?
The evening also focused on top issues that candidates have been hearing at the doors: cost of living- a popular topic being heard at doors and forums so far all across the city; downtown social issues; future NWT leadership; housing shortages; land transfer and funding shortfalls within the Yellowknife municipal boundaries; electoral reform; and the quality of health care delivery following the merging of six health authorities into one.
About 75 to 80 people – many from the Yellowknife North district – attended the forum at the Weledeh Catholic School gymnasium.