The minister responsible for child protection said his staff would redouble their efforts following an extraordinarily critical assessment from the Office of the Auditor General.
An audit published on Tuesday said the NWT's Child and Family Services unit was failing children in a range of ways, from a lack of regular communication to a disregard for basic safety checks when placing them into care.
The audit said changes instituted by the Department of Health and Social Services in response to a previous critical report were largely administrative and unnecessarily complicated an already overburdened system – meaning many services actually got worse, not better, in the intervening four years.
Responding immediately following the report's publication, Health and Social Services Minister Glen Abernethy said he had been given a day's advance notice of its damning contents.
Abernethy said the Auditor General's findings were not dissimilar to those published in the territory's own report earlier in October, and insisted many of the concerns were already being addressed.
"The findings are absolutely disappointing and very, very difficult," said Abernethy, who was also the minister responsible at the time of the 2014 Auditor General's report.
"We need to double our efforts," he said. "We need to work closer with our staff. We need to ensure that our staff's voices are heard, and we need to make sure that we get this right."
Abernethy said he would press his department to deliver swift improvements, adding: "If we draw out another five-year plan, there is too much opportunity for it to get off the rails. I want tight, concise actions, I want them in two years, and I want to be able to see results shortly."
He also pointed to senior staff turnover as a significant obstacle to success, calling for a system to be designed that can withstand such changes.
"We have to design things that don't require an individual employee that exists today," he said.
Alex Brockman, CBC: Seeing this report, this is not good. Things have gotten worse. What's your reaction to that?
Glen Abernethy: Obviously, our first priority is the safety and wellbeing of children within the Northwest Territories, especially children who are accessing the Child and Family Services system. The findings are absolutely disappointing and very, very difficult. We have, over the last number of years, been focused on bringing about a significant change in Child and Family Services, and we have focused on our new direction – which is Building Stronger Families [see note below]. That is focusing on keeping families together, keeping them united.
We still believe, fundamentally, Building Stronger Families is the right path, but we do acknowledge we have had significant difficulties in bringing those programs and those realities to life here in the Northwest Territories. Frankly, more needs to be done. We need to double our efforts. We need to work closer with our staff. We need to ensure that our staff's voices are heard, and we need to make sure that we get this right. The children only have one childhood.
Notes: Building Stronger Families is the territorial government's action plan to transform Child and Family Services, launched in 2014 as a response to the last report from the Auditor General's office. You can read the plan here and the minister's March 2018 progress update on Building Stronger Families is here.
Ollie Williams, Cabin Radio: You say that this is 'disappointing'. I mean, it could hardly have been worse as an Auditor General's report. It's damning throughout. Where is the first area that you think you can make any kind of difference, here?
Well, I mean... to be clear, much of what was in this Auditor General's report is consistent with what we tabled earlier last week, with our own director's report. There are significant challenges that we've identified with record-keeping and some of the more structural aspects of providing these services. We've been working on making corrections in this area for a number of months now. We have already started to bring in additional training; we have already started to develop the guidance and protocols for out-of-territory placements. Training has been occurring. We have already enhanced training. So, a number of things that the Auditor General says that we need to do, we have already started – because it showed in our internal audit as well.
Avery Zingel, NNSL: I have a question about concerns about resources and staffing. I know you said you just got the report recently, but I'm just wondering, in terms of assessing whether there are enough resources to address some of the systemic problems that are outlined in that audit...
Through our own internal audits, which I think it's clear that this audit also supports, it's that there are some challenges around the number of people we have dedicated to providing these services. I'm proposing, through the next budget cycle, an increase in the number of Child and Family Services workers here in the NWT. It has to go through its normal process, it has to be presented in the House and voted on, but I'm of the opinion – as is the department, as are many – that we need to get more feet on the street, more support for our existing staff, to make sure that they have the time and the resources to get this important work done, and get it done right. Like I said, the children only have one childhood.
Alex Brockman, CBC: How many staff? Because this report shows people working three or four extra jobs, it really shows something that is going to need more than an extra worker in Yellowknife, an extra worker here or there. It shows there needs to be a significant increase.
We're planning a rollout over the next five years. We have some numbers that we're going to pitch, or propose, for the upcoming budget cycle. I'm not in a position to say how many positions those are at this point, I've got to follow our due process, but we are looking to increase positions in some of the regions where the number of children in care is higher, and where we're experiencing the most difficulties. That will hopefully get passed in the budget.
In the meantime, we're also trying really hard to make sure that the positions that are out there are filled. We have a large number of vacancies. Turnover is a reality for us, here in the NWT – finding people to come and do the work, and then stay in those jobs – given that it's a high-stress job. The individuals that are doing this work are investing huge amounts of themselves in trying to help protect children, and doing the right thing. That includes having families that are strong and able to stay together, and it is a high-burnout job. It is a high-stress job.
We need to support those employees, we need to make sure that they are not only taking care of their clients but also taking care of themselves, and getting trained on a regular basis. Clearly, the audit has suggested that we have struggled with some of our training. We agree, and have accepted every recommendation in this report – all 11 recommendations. And we have already put in place actions to start addressing these shortcomings.
Ollie Williams, Cabin Radio: You accepted every recommendation in the last report. What will make it different this time around?
We actually moved on all the recommendations in the last report, and this report didn't actually address all the recommendations. We did significant work around accountability–
Ollie Williams, Cabin Radio: All right. It addressed some of them, though, and it wasn't great.
Sure, absolutely. We spent a lot of time over the last couple of years putting in foundation pieces: Building Stronger Families, getting the Structured Decision Making model in place, finally getting the information system in place so that we can actually have the tool that our employees have asked for in order to do the record-keeping and stuff that they need to do [see note below]. So those things are in place; we've got a lot of the foundational pieces in place.
Where we fell down is – clearly, as the auditor said – supporting our employees and making sure we are properly resourced, getting the training necessary for them. That was also clear in our own internal audits and we've already moved on improving our response to children in southern care, we're working on the new guidelines on that right now. We're anticipating having them out in a month or two. And there are a couple of other areas where we are hoping to have some changes imminently, immediately. Some of these other things like training and getting positions, it's going to take us a little bit more time, but we're doing the work now and starting to already see some of the benefits of that.
We've also put in some more quality improvement, or quality assurance, mechanisms, which is something we didn't have the first time around. We've got staff dedicated to pulling out some of the metrics so we can share them with our own staff, so they can see, 'Hey, in this region, this isn't happening. This needs to happen. How do we work together?' We're also trying to flip it upside down, a little bit. A lot of it has been top-down, top-heavy, driven from the top. The staff are our front lines. They are the ones interacting with the kids; the ones who are interacting with the families. We need to make sure that their voices are heard back, as well, so we're trying to flip it a bit to make sure that our front-line people have more ability to influence how the system is designed and modified–
Notes: The Structured Decision Making model is produced by the National Council on Crime and Delinquency, to help agencies and workers manage and assess case files. The council, which created the model, reviewed how the NWT was using it (at the health department's request) and produced a critical report in which the council disagreed with around 50 percent of decisions the department's workers took, using its model, regarding child safety. More training was recommended but, according to the Auditor General's office, has not yet happened.
Alex Brockman, CBC: To be fair, the report said that those workers aren't contacting families and that, in some cases, 90 percent of cases aren't getting that proper follow through or they're not doing the proper background checks. Is this something that's on... changing the way workers work?
Exactly. That's what we're committing to. If you take a look of the recommendations that are in the Auditor General's report, we've addressed every one of the recommendations. We have articulated how we are going to move forward. Instead of coming up with another five-year plan, I have told the department we need to see action, we need to see these changes taking place. Now, if we draw out another five-year plan, there is too much opportunity for it to get off the rails. I want tight, concise actions, I want them in two years, and I want to be able to see results shortly.
We are already starting to see some of those results with the training and supports we are giving to our employees. We've put in more quality assurance mechanisms, which, frankly, we didn't have, so we can now report on things in a more clear and concise manner. That is going to be useful for our front-line staff. It wasn't necessarily useful for our front-line staff previously. These things need to happen. These children... these families need this support. We are committed to it.
Our front-line staff, in my opinion – I've talked to so many of them – they believe in supporting families, they believe in helping families. They haven't always been adequately resourced, they've been frustrated by some of the training that they wanted but haven't necessarily got. We also asked our staff to go about this fundamental mindset change in how we provide services, moving away from an apprehension system to a family support system, Building Stronger Families. We asked them to do that at the same time as we asked the entire system to go through system transformation [see note below]. That's an awful lot to ask of employees, to not only change the structure and nature of how you report and work, but also to fundamentally change how you think about your job.
The report is clear. There is no question in my mind that Building Stronger Families is the right path. Clearly we didn't hit all our marks and didn't get the work done as far as realizing and making that a reality. We will.
Notes: Abernethy is referring to the merging of six regional health authorities into one, larger health authority, which happened in 2016.
Sidney Cohen, CBC: The report talks about a child who went missing from a facility down south; it talks about a kid who was moved 20 times; a kid who was assaulted by his or her guardian. As a parent, how does this report make you feel?
Like I said, these children only have one childhood and we need to make sure that they a positive childhood. I'm not going to talk about any individual cases, I think that would be inappropriate, because we do have privacy issues. But any one of those six situations that were flagged by the Auditor General, they did raise them when they thought there were concerns to the system, and they were immediately acted upon and addressed so that those issues were resolved in an appropriate way.
So the Auditor General did work very closely with us when they came across issues, but they also indicated to me, when I met them, that our department was very, very forthcoming with information – they didn't hold anything back, they answered the questions that were asked. There was every intention, and I'm very supportive of that, that this information gets out. We are not trying to hold anything back. We want this information out because it's going to help us make this system better.
Alex Brockman, CBC: And on that note, looking at transparency, how are we going to know that things are improving and things are working? Will we need to wait for another audit?
No, we have an audit every year. We have a director's report that comes out every year. The director's report this year was very clear on some of the challenges that we are facing. It also articulates some of the things that we know are going well. We have less kids going into permanent care; we have less families being taken apart; we have more people that are receiving care with their families. Where we have failed is in making sure that some of the paperwork and some of the double-checks are done in that area, and we are going to get that done.
The auditor's report will come out. On top of that, there will be this two-year action plan that's coming out. I've asked that the plan be clear and concise, short, with measurable targets that we can see in this two-year period. I think we've done a lot of five-year plans over the years – I think we need to be more concise, and more clear, and more measurable. So that will go in front of the Standing Committee. There will be another briefing with the Standing Committee, and they will likely have a number of recommendations for us as well. We are moving on all the recommendations that the Auditor General put forward, and we have sought advice from other experts who can help us explore options to make sure that our staff are properly resourced.
John Last, CBC: Are you committing to making those auditors' reports every year publicly available?
They are. They are tabled every year.
John Last, CBC: OK. They have been redacted in the past.
Notes: The reporter is referring to a CBC Access to Information request earlier this year, which the broadcaster said resulted in the return of redacted audit documents.
No. That was the internal audit information. The department received an ATIPP request. They released the information. They did redact a bit. There was a review by the ATIPP commissioner, who said it probably shouldn't have been redacted. I got that, I reviewed it. When I looked at the information that was shared, I agreed with what the commissioner said and I had them release the information. Having said that, I will always the protect the families' privacy and the children's privacy, so I won't be supporting releasing any documents that identify John, Jane, John Doe, any family members. That's not appropriate. What was redacted wasn't that, so we fixed that when the ATIPP commissioner made the recommendation. But the director's report is an annual document, it is tabled in the house, and it does include much of the information that is in this audit.
Ollie Williams, Cabin Radio: The Auditor General's report says children will remain at risk until a lot of these recommendations are significantly and substantively addressed. As of now, today, to what extent do you believe children are at risk in the NWT?
The Auditor General's report clearly articulated that there are challenges. We've accepted all the recommendations and we are making improvements as we speak. Tomorrow, there is going to be an opportunity for a technical briefing where we can get right into some more of the detail, but the safety of these children, the safety of these families is paramount, and we are going to make the improvements that are necessary – as articulated within the report – to ensure that we have a healthy, robust system that protects children and helps maintain families where appropriate.
Avery Zingel, NNSL: In terms of criminal background checks, that one seems to be a pretty simple one. Is that a matter of resources? Is that something that you, as minister, are going to ask that the department really pay closer attention to?
Notes: The reporter is referring to a section of the Auditor General's report which states some children were placed with guardians who had not received much, or any, screening.
I already have. I can't say why worker X or worker Y did not perform that check – they are required to. It could be multiple reasons: it could be resources, it could be the demands of time, it could be any of these things. I just don't know. But it is an area that's very concerning, as are the foster family checks and all the other things that were identified in the report. We are going to make those changes. We are going to put in the systems that allow and support our employees to do the work that is necessary, and we will focus on the wellbeing of children.
Alex Brockman, CBC: How confident are you in the team that you have to go forward and do things right next time?
I had a briefing, last week, with some of the staff from the department on our own, internal audit, and I was struck by how there wasn't one person there that was there four years ago. We have significant turnover.
But I know many of the individuals. We have talked about these questions in detail and in depth. I'm confident that we've got a team of dedicated professionals who want to see this done right, and will work – they'll redouble their efforts – to get this right.
Turnover is a reality, but we need to design systems that survive individuals, that continue to be strong and robust even when one of our key employees leaves. And I have stressed that that has got to be a part of the plan, that we have to design things that don't require an individual employee that exists today for it to be successful. That cannot work.