Problems with how the Northwest Territories, in Northern Canada, protects children in its care have only gotten worse since the auditor general’s last report in 2014.
This assessment comes from a follow-up audit of the Northwest Territories Department of Health and its health and social services authorities released Tuesday by Canada’s Office of the Auditor General.
“We are deeply disappointed in the results of this audit,” said Glenn Wheeler, the lead auditor on the report. “There was a lot of emphasis of changing administrative processes. These were introduced to a system that in many ways was overburdened.”
The 41-page audit report shows a bureaucracy struggling — and in most cases failing — to implement the recommendations from four years ago.
While the requirements for caring for children in care remain, the department has not yet assessed the appropriate staffing and resources to meet those requirements. That led to employees working multiple jobs and serious gaps in monitoring the status of children in care, the report states.
“In some cases what we found was worse than in 2014,” Wheeler said. “We’re hoping this time around the department and authorities develop a detailed action plan and they follow through.
“It’s a difficult area to deliver programs and services, but these are vulnerable families and children.”
About 1,000 children per year receive protection or preventive services from the territory, an average that’s remained steady over the past decade. The majority are Indigenous. Auditors reviewed 37 child files and 37 foster care files to determine whether the government met its responsibilities under the Child Protection Act.
Guardians, homes not checked
The audit found that officers with the territory’s health and social services authorities, which are responsible for following up on children in care, did not maintain the required regular contact with nine out of 10 children placed in foster care. In 2014, that number was six out of 10.
Other key findings within the audit include:
- Some children were placed in permanent care of guardians or family members without basic background checks. In one of those cases, the guardian was charged with assaulting the child.
- Officials did not properly supervise children placed out of the territory. One of those children went missing for a week and officials did not know who was responsible for overseeing their safe return.
- Officials continue to place children in foster care homes without proper screening, an issue first raised in 2014. In a review of 37 foster care files, two out of every three homes were not screened.
- Children are regularly moved between foster homes within a short period of time. Between April 2016 and March 31, 2017, officials moved three children in permanent care five times and moved another child at least 20 times.
In addition, the territory is now leaving more children in the care of their parents under “plan-of-care agreements.” But in 88 per cent of those agreements, health authorities failed to maintain minimum standards of contact with children and parents, the audit reports.
“All children, all families are entitled to particular services under the Child Protection Act. The standard is high,” said Wheeler. “There needs to be 100 per cent compliance. There can’t be even one child left in a vulnerable situation.”
The audit made 11 recommendations for improving the territory’s ability to protect children in its care. The territory’s Department of Health and health and social services authorities agreed to follow all 11, which it did in 2014 as well.
‘This is serious,’ says health minister
Health Minister Glen Abernethy called the audit’s findings disappointing and “very, very difficult,” and pointed to high turnover in the department as one reason why things haven’t improved.
That said, he had some stern words.
“Instead of coming out with another five-year plan, I’ve told the department we need to see action, we need to see changes taking place,” he said. “I want them in two years and I want to be able to see results.”
Abernethy did also defend his department’s staff, saying every situation flagged by the auditor general was “immediately” acted upon. As well, he pointed out that fewer children are going into permanent care than before, and more youth are receiving care with their own families.
“Where we have failed is making sure that some of the paperwork and some of the double-checks are done,” he said.
“This is serious, this is incredibly important, this is something we all have to work on better, smarter and more effectively…. The kids only have one childhood.”
Related stories from around the North:
Canada: Canadian Inuit say ‘urgency’ needed in child welfare changes, CBC News
United States: Alaska and its tribes sign child services agreement, Alaska Public Media