Health

What now for the NWT’s kids in care and social workers?


More questions, more answers. More admonitions. More promises. More concern.

A key plan to revamp and remediate the Northwest Territories’ child welfare system received its latest tire-kicking from politicians on Wednesday.

Now, with all manner of clocks ticking, managers must implement more than 70 corrective measures while dozens more recommendations are probably on the way.

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Not only senior staff and their minister, but all territorial politicians, are outspoken in looking to avoid a repeat of earlier, ineffective responses.

However, with the federal government promising new legislation and the Auditor General’s staff suggesting the NWT still isn’t getting some of the message, the future for those in the middle of all this – the children, families, and staff – remains uncertain.

Cheat sheet: catch up in five paragraphs

On Wednesday, a committee of MLAs heard from both the Auditor General’s staff who conducted October’s deeply critical review, and senior staff tasked with fixing things. The Department of Health and Social Services set out 37 actions it has already taken, and 34 more it plans to take, to make Child and Family Services work for the NWT’s residents.

Both the report from the Auditor General and the territory’s own assessment presented serious deficiencies to address – chiefly areas in which the department and health authorities did not follow their own rules, particularly around background checks and regular contact, or did not have the resources to get the job done to their own standards.

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The Auditor General’s team told committee members the NWT still hasn’t done some basic work around assessing exactly what resources it needs to deliver child protection services that are fit for purpose.

Departmental staff say change is under way and, if all goes to plan, the NWT could become an example of how to get it right – particularly if it can convince the Department of Finance to come up with more money for more employees. But Ottawa’s recent promise to craft legislation regarding Indigenous child welfare has introduced an unknown quantity: nobody knows what that legislation will contain and what effect it will have.

Meanwhile, the committee which heard evidence on Wednesday is likely to add many more recommendations to those already made by both the Auditor General and the territory’s own managers – creating the fresh challenge of synthesizing all of those demands and remaining accountable while still implementing change swiftly and successfully.

What has happened since October’s report came out?

Firstly, the territorial government has identified dozens of actions to tackle problems identified by the auditors – although the territory says it was already working on a bunch of those actions even before the Auditor General’s office published its latest report.

In full: What the GNWT says it’s doing to turn around Child and Family Services

Glen Abernethy, the NWT’s minister of health and social services, faced and fairly comfortably survived a vote of no confidence in the legislature tied directly to the failings identified by the Auditor General.

Abernethy has called on his department to deliver meaningful changes within two years – one of the clocks ticking – rather than the five-year span over which action plans are more often spread.

The Auditor General’s office could well return in four years’ time for yet another follow-up, just as it did this year following a 2014 visit – a second clock ticking.

And the federal government last month said it would introduce legislation aimed at ensuring Indigenous governments had some form of jurisdiction over Indigenous child welfare. The Liberal government will presumably seek to pass that legislation before next fall’s federal election – another clock ticking.

The territorial government says it has already completed more than 40 action items designed to improve child protection but, on Wednesday, the auditors said the territory needed to do better at analyzing the scale of the challenge it faces and the actual resources it requires to do an adequate job.

According to the auditors, the funding model for child welfare is two decades old and nobody in the Department of Health and Social Services can explain the model’s rationale. Twice before, the auditors said, the NWT has insisted it will produce a thorough analysis of the resources it needs to do the job – but, they added, little evidence could be found of this work being complete.

The territory said it intended to address the auditors’ recommendation on that front “to the letter.”

Is this going to be the plan that works?

The auditors’ reservations notwithstanding – the Auditor General’s team sits in the privileged position of being able to do no wrong in these hearings, its job being to confirm just how bad everything is and why – the territory feels it is on the right path.

Bruce Cooper, the deputy minister of health and social services, argues the NWT’s response places effective management and care for staff at its core, with consequent benefits for families and children served by those employees.

“We are doing something, in the plan we are coming forward with, that I believe is not only defensible but I hope, if we are successful, other people would take a look at,” Cooper told MLAs.

A key plank of the plan is to do better at recruitment and retention, relieving staff of a current overwork problem visible across the board.

However, the detail of how the territory will improve recruitment and retention is not yet apparent. Retention not only bedevils all employers in the NWT but plagues child and family services across Canada, making this a particularly tough promise to keep.

“Every time we lose a person, the rule of thumb is you lose six months of productivity,” said Cooper.

“We need to look at our delivery model. Where we have perpetual vacancies, maybe we need to change our model. Maybe we need to use a fly-in, fly-out, hub-and-spoke model that has been successful in other places.”

Asked what role front-line workers had played in formulating the new plan, senior staff appeared to momentarily struggle for the right words.

“Front-line workers have not played the kind of role that they will play,” Cooper eventually said. “I realized we weren’t engaging front-line staff as fully as we should.”

Cooper says a “quality committee” will be tasked with directly engaging front-line staff. Creating and communicating consistent standards for staff to follow is a development senior staff are keen to stress, the audit’s clear conclusion having been that such standards were not well-enforced. That is likely to be the most immediately noticeable change for families and children in the NWT’s child welfare system.

“Going forward with the draft we have shared in its current form, it would be our plan to engage with front-line staff more fully,” said Cooper. “The only way we are really going to reform our system is if we created a strong, supported team of front-line staff who have the tools they need.”

Improved reporting is also promised, though how that reporting will define success is important.

Yellowknife Centre MLA Julie Green – in a line of questioning about screening of guardians – asked Cooper: “Do you have a goal for compliance that’s something other than 100 percent?”

“We of course want to see 100 percent compliance with standards, but that’s a complex issue,” Cooper replied.

“We should obviously work toward 100 percent. The challenge for us, as a system, is that you can be in 100 percent compliance with standards and still not focus on the right outcomes.”

Isn’t the federal government getting involved?

Apparently so, although nobody knows quite how.

In late November, Ottawa announced it is working with First Nations, Inuit, and Métis groups to pass legislation that will hand control of relevant child welfare responsibilities to Indigenous governments.

While the federal government said it had consulted with provinces and territories over the summer, the NWT sounds virtually clueless as to the expected content of this new legislation.

This is a concern, as one big problem after the Auditor General’s last unfavourable review – in 2014 – was that a reorganization of NWT health authorities got in the way of effective change. Another reorganization inspired by Ottawa, however desirable the ultimate goal, runs the risk of similar disruption.

Cooper told Cabin Radio he thinks – or at least, hopes – federal legislation will focus on enshrining principles he believes the NWT already adopts.

“We already have a model of self-governance that allows for communities to draw down authority in this area,” said Cooper, though Dene National Chief Norman Yakeleya had earlier, in a significantly different interpretation, called Ottawa’s announcement “a huge step.”

“We have been wondering – we haven’t seen the legislation yet – so we are interested in what that means,” Cooper conceded. “We believe it is just going to be a statement of principle, which is one that this territory has been committed to for a long time.

“I do not think it will have a material impact,” he added. “One of the questions we have is, is this actually going to be about individuals that don’t live on a reserve? Right now, the federal role in child welfare is really on the reserves. We have an integrated system here.

“We don’t know what the consequence of this legislation will be, but we’re certainly hopeful there will be support for Indigenous communities to build capacity, so that if they wish to draw down authority, they are supported – and if they don’t, we are supported to work with them to do a better job.”

What happens now?

Exactly the same thing that happened in 2014. The committee of MLAs finishes hearing evidence, goes away and writes a report, and comes back (almost certainly) with a set of recommendations for the territorial government.

In 2014, the committee came back with 30 recommendations – taking the total number of recommendations from all sources to more than 100.

Despite so many recommendations being put forward four years ago (not all of which were either followed or agreed with by the department), that approach was demonstrably not sufficient to adequately repair Child and Family Services.

“We are all responsible for allowing these problems to persist,” said Hay River North MLA RJ Simpson. “That we have allowed things to get to this point is a failure of us as politicians, and of senior staff at the health authority and the department.”

Asked about the sheer number of recommendations likely to be produced, Cooper told Cabin Radio: “How do we keep our eye on the prize at the same time as being accountable, as we should be? This is something we’re going to have to manage.

“Today, I heard among MLAs… certainly Julie Green was very tuned in to the dynamic that your question implies.”

MLAs like Simpson and Green are expected to fight hard for this topic to be kept in the spotlight it has earned in recent months, which may not be as easy as it sounds.

Committee chair Kieron Testart and Simpson both tore a strip off the department for only providing its action plan to MLAs a day ahead of Wednesday’s hearing. (Cooper told Cabin Radio this was based on a misunderstanding about the process.)

“We only received this action plan yesterday. This public review has more of the potential to turn into a commercial for the department,” said Simpson.

“The only reason we’ve gone ahead … is the public interest. There’s a full room here and lots of people watching online as well,” he added, though – at the time of his remark – it appeared only seven people were watching the webcast via Twitter and Facebook.

The legislature’s committees reconvene in January and session as a whole returns in February, at which point this committee’s report, and any recommendations, will be made public.

The territory, meanwhile, has pledged to file quarterly progress reports.

And all the while, the Office of the Auditor General will watch from afar with the year 2022 circled in red.

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