Child protection workers in the N.W.T. withheld important documents from foster families, “lied” about the behavioural issues of children in care, and “verbally abused” foster parents, according to a 27-page letter sent to MLAs by the Foster Family Coalition of the Northwest Territories.
The letter’s allegations are the result of a 2.5 hour meeting with 16 Yellowknife-based foster caregivers organized by the coalition on Dec. 12, 2019. Also in attendance were three Health and Social Services officials, including Colette Prevost, the executive director of the territory’s Child and Family Services division
“There was a lot of crying,” said Tammy Roberts, the executive director of the coalition. “Most of the people there had [immediate] concerns for children that they were providing care for.”
When attendees were asked to state what positive experiences they had with the foster family system, half passed on providing an answer, according to the letter.
The letter obtained by CBC includes a list of 49 grievances, most of which include recommended solutions. Taken as a whole, it alleges a systemic lack of support for caregivers, who were provided with incomplete or inaccurate information and, in some cases, intentionally misled by front-line workers.
Fear of retribution
According to a Department of Health and Social Services spokesperson, there were 140 foster homes in the Northwest Territories actively accepting child placements between April 1, 2018 and March 31, 2019 — 47 in the Yellowknife region.
In that same time frame, there were a total of 163 youth in the territory who were in temporary and permanent care of the government’s Child and Family Services, with 60 youth in the Yellowknife region. Those numbers are yearly totals, the spokesperson noted, and fluctuate as children move between foster families and their biological families.
The preamble to the Foster Family Coalition’s list says the issues go back “many decades,” but caregivers have “refrain[ed] from complaining … due to fear of losing important supports and services … or having a child removed from their home suddenly.”
“I think it just shows … the urgency when people are pushing beyond that fear, and are speaking out,” said Roberts.
Most of the issues identified are with front-line workers, who Roberts said have the power to relocate children or initiate investigations against foster parents, a detail confirmed by the department.
“Of course, those are the people that are going to be in the line of fire because those are the only ones that … foster caregivers have direct contact with,” said Roberts.
“But when you talk to the foster caregivers… they know that [the workers] don’t have time to implement all the changes that … are happening constantly above them.”
Government says system improving
Roberts said she tried to organize a meeting on these issues with Health Minister Diane Thom after she was sworn in in November. She received no reply.
On Monday, she sent Thom the letter in full. The following day, Thom responded in writing, pointing her to the results of a progress report saying they had implemented one-third of a three year improvement plan in the wake of a scathing 2018 Auditor General’s report. The response is generic and does not refer to the letter.
CBC has asked the Department of Health and Social Services for an interview, and provided it with a list of questions Monday. The department spokesperson said via email on Thursday that Thom has reached out to the Foster Family Coalition and is working on a meeting date to discuss the concerns in the letter. Thom’s Jan. 14 response to the Foster Family Coalition does not request a meeting.
The 2018 auditor general’s report found the system routinely failed to check in with children in care, and placed the blame for worsening results since a 2014 audit with the Department of Health and Social Services.
Glenn Wheeler, the principal auditor, said the department “overburdened” the system with ambitious new standards and offered little support for front-line workers.
“When the  report came out … it kind of gives you a burst of energy because … you think things are going to change,” said Roberts.
But Roberts said the changes since have not resulted in improvements.
“Everything that’s happening up above is not translating to services on the ground for people,” she said.
“People have lost sight of who we’re doing this for. We’re doing this for children … that are at risk.
“This is just another case of them being traumatized again.”
Coalition not consulted for 2018 report
The Foster Family Coalition was consulted for the 2014 report, but not for the 2018 report, Roberts says. The letter mentions none of the foster families present at the meeting were interviewed for an internal audit conducted since then.
In their response, the department said that since the 2018 audit, “regular meetings have been implemented between the Department of Health and Social Services, Northwest Territories Health and Social Services Authority, and the Foster Families Coalition,” noting that the auditor general’s office chose who to interview in the course of their 2018 audit, and not the territory.
On Thursday, Roberts met with MLAs including Shane Thompson, minister responsible for youth, and Caitlin Cleveland, chair of the Standing Committee on Social Development, to discuss the letter.
Roberts said she hopes the letter will help MLAs “see that we need to stop sugar coating everything, and be real.”
“I hope people are going to listen, but you have to remember that our foster caregivers have no hope in that at all.”
Below are some of the most serious claims included in the letter, organized under four headings.
The letter can be read in full at the bottom of this story.
The letter alleges in several places that child protection workers intentionally misled foster parents or knowingly withheld information.
“Foster caregivers experience verbal abuse and are lied to by child protection workers,” it reads. “Child protection workers have shown that they do not trust foster caregivers … [and] accused foster caregivers of lying to them.”
Child protection workers “often” withhold important information, including a child’s behavioural history, the letter alleges, and mislead caregivers about the length of a placement.
Caregivers will be told they are taking a child for a short placement, the letter reads, then “find out — through other people — that the child’s placement has actually be[en] extended.”
In other cases, the opposite happens, and a child they have been told is in a permanent placement, “without notice, is removed from their home.”
The letter also accuses child protection workers of outright lying.
“A child with a history of major behavioural issues that are accurately recorded in their file … will be sent to a home, and the worker will … explicitly say that the child has no behaviour issues,” the letter reads.
Front-line workers are also “known to withhold information about a child in care so that the foster caregiver will be more likely to take them as an emergency placement,” the letter reads.
The department said in their email response that foster families can refer issues with child protection workers to that worker’s supervisor. If a complaint needed to be escalated by a foster family, it would be brought to the region’s chief operating officer, said the department spokesperson.
The NWT Health and Social Services Authority also maintains a patient representative line where complaints can be brought forward, the spokesperson said.
The bulk of the letter describes widespread dysfunction in the Child and Family Services system.
One alarming example relates to a story of a child who went missing while in out-of-territory care.
When the foster parent called Child and Family Services to report that the child had gone missing, it referred them to the RCMP. The RCMP sent the issue back to Child and Family Services.
“This child was vulnerable and missing for many days before any action was taken,” the letter reads.
In an email, RCMP spokesperson Marie York-Condon said that each investigation is unique, and “the investigations are led by the information and evidence brought forward throughout the investigation.
“The RCMP is responsible for any criminal investigation, and would defer to the [N.W.T.] Department of Health and Social Services Child and Family Services section for investigations that would fall under their mandate. That said, we also work closely with [Health] on multi-level investigations,” she wrote.
In its emailed response, Health and Social Services said that “any individual is required by law to report a Concern to Child and Family services if they suspect child maltreatment,” and it is then the responsibility of child protection workers to complete the initial response.
“The RCMP is a partner to the Child and Family Service system and as such may be involved at various stages of our work with children, families and youth,” the response reads. “If necessary, the RCMP will assist in locating children who have gone missing.”
Child protection workers also do not check in with children after they’re returned to their biological parents, the letter says.
Foster parents often do not receive critical information like a child’s medical files, and schools and teachers are not informed when children are placed in care or moved between houses.
Incorrect birthdates and health card numbers are given on documents, and the originals can take months or years to obtain, the letter says.
One child who has been in care “since they were three years old, still does not have a health-care card,” it reads.
Personnel, the letter notes, are “constantly moving positions.” Managers and directors asked to fill front-line roles get little to no handover, meaning “caregivers [must] take on the role as co-ordinator.”
Lack of support
Over and over, the letter highlights the lack of support foster parents receive, many of whom support three or more children in care — an “unmanageable” number, it says.
“Even in these cases, foster caregivers may be guilted by their worker about why they are not taking any more placements,” it reads.
There is “no essential training” for caregivers and they receive little prior information about children placed in their care.
There are no supports for “respite care,” when children are temporarily supervised to give caregivers a break, and requests for support are met with judgment, the letter says.
Reimbursement of expenses, especially for babysitting and respite care, can take months, and agencies regularly lose receipts, it reads.
Foster caregivers aren’t alone — the letter notes biological parents receive little continuing support once families are reunified.
In its email response, the department said that the acceptable number of children placed with a single caregiver is assessed by a social worker “on a case by case basis.”
The response also noted that the territory does not currently have a formal respite program for foster families, and decisions for respite support are also made case by case.
“This has been identified as a need and we are committed to exploring the establishment of a respite program for foster caregivers,” the response reads, noting that compensation will also be reviewed as part of that work.
Lack of oversight
“When something goes drastically wrong, it seems as though there is never any accountability on the team at Child and Family Services,” the letter reads.
Often, it says, the department attributes errors to chronic short-staffing.
In the case of the child who went missing out-of-territory for over a week, “no one took responsibility to find them and ensure they were safe, and the excuse provided was that they were short staffed,” it reads.
- Do you have a story about the foster care system? Contact firstname.lastname@example.org
Child protection workers, in addition to their supervisors, sign off on their own reviews by foster families. But foster families are “often ignored” in internal audits anyway, the letter says.
“It has been shown time and again that authorities will not take the time to listen to people who see the struggles on the front-line,” the letter reads.
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