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In evacuation chaos, some foster families felt abandoned

“What are they doing to support foster parents RIGHT NOW? We are doing our best, but we need to hear some clear messages about what they will do to support us financially RIGHT NOW.”

That message came to Cabin Radio from a foster parent last week.

The foster mom – who we’ll call Alice, as she asked for her identity to be shielded – reached out with her urgent plea because she felt that Child and Family Services, the NWT agency that ordinarily provides support, had all but shut down as Yellowknifers fled an oncoming wildfire.

Health and social services minister Julie Green had told the CBC that case workers were ready to assist. “Child and Family Services has been contacting the caregivers daily to ensure [the children] are safe and that their needs are being met, and to do any problem-solving,” said Green on August 24.

But Alice said that wasn’t so, in her experience.



“We have three young foster children. Since the week when the evacuation order came, I had received two phone calls and one email,” she wrote at the time.

With her foster children and other members of her own family – nine in total, plus the family dog – Alice has been managing in two rooms of an Alberta motel since driving out hours before the evacuation order was posted on August 16.

In the absence of any support plan from Child and Family Services, or CFS, she said the family has been absorbing all living costs on her own credit card.

An emergency cash allowance of $500 per child, which was expected to land in foster families’ accounts on August 30, would come as welcome help, Alice said. Monthly support payments, normally sent on the last day of each month, were also advanced a few days earlier.



But that did not dispel her dismay at what she felt was the territorial government’s lack of preparation for this kind of event, and especially its poor communication in the first 10 days of the crisis.

“We saw it coming, right?” She said of the evacuation order.

“I’m proactive and I wasn’t getting a response back. Finally, I did get a response in a short conversation … and in that conversation, there was a verbal indication that they would provide what we needed.

“So I wanted to confirm, and I sent a text message and an email, and all I got back was: ‘Thank you for contacting us.'”

Jeremy Bird, a spokesperson for the NWT’s Department of Health and Social Services, acknowledged by email “a great deal of uncertainty during the first 72 hours following the evacuation order.”

“Accommodations and meals were less than ideal,” Bird admitted.

“We recognize and empathize with the duress that foster caregivers, children, youth as well as families we work with experienced during this time.

“However, where there was an identified need, support was provided to foster caregivers, such as fuel, food supplies, formula, and diapers to assist in their evacuation. Some staff even travelled with caregivers to support and assist children in care on a case-by-case basis.”



On Tuesday, Bird said the territory was working through “formal approvals” to finalize the $500 emergency cash payment.

He said the last Child and Families Services staff had departed Yellowknife on August 19 “and immediately started to provide services on the ground with a broader team to foster caregivers, children, youth, and families.”

Approximately 150 children and youth in out-of-home placements are impacted by the evacuation order, Bird said.

When Cabin Radio followed up with Alice on Monday, five days after her initial email, she sounded more upbeat and was getting at least one call a day from support staff.

“As of late last week, they seemed to be pulling their act together,” she said. “It’s more positive than it was.”

Overall, she said, relations between foster families and CFS had been going downhill prior to the latest emergency, in part because of high turnover among case workers. She said the Covid-19 pandemic had made things “very difficult.”

“I don’t do this for the money,” Alice added, “because what they provide does not even began to cover adequate care for the children.” The per-diem rate per child is between $24 and $30 per day, depending on age, plus annual allowances for clothing and allowed expenses. 

Alice’s anger came through her voice as she criticized the system for not upping those rates for more than 10 years.



“Not enough is not enough. That’s just the bottom line. But like, somebody needs to punch this button a little harder,” she said.

“This is why you lose parents. This job is hard, these kids are needy. They are all kids affected by trauma.

“These little ones claim your heart. You know, I didn’t start out to be ‘Mom’. I started out as Alice. But the 10-month-old starts talking and I’m the only mom. I’m the one that stands between them and the world. I fight for these guys for everything they need. I fight for them.”

The youngest of her three foster kids had a birthday last week. Alice bought new presents to replace those left behind in the evacuation rush, and took the kids to the zoo. “What are you going to do?” She said. “A five-year-old needs a birthday.”

“One day, they were worrying. They’re listening to us talk, right? She asked, ‘Mom, is the fire going to come over the fence and burn our house and my toys?’ I said, ‘Honey, if it does, I know God will take care of us.’ And she says, ‘Mama, we’re walking in God’s hands right now.'”

Airlift lineup

A veteran foster mother who, again, asked for her identity to be concealed – we’ll call her Agatha – left Yellowknife on August 16, the day of the evacuation order, by road.

With her one foster child, Agatha and family found safe haven with relatives in Alberta.

“That’s a big, big help because I don’t even know what we would do. You can’t afford a hotel. Our insurance is not sounding like they’re going to help much at all,” she told Cabin Radio.



As she left her home city, the perceived absence of any cohesive guidance or emergency plan from CFS frustrated and baffled her.

“At that point, the road was closed. And we’re like, well, what do you expect us to do? And they had no answer to that. They just said, ‘Make a plan and let us know where you’re going, OK?’ But we have your children, who you are in charge of, and you’re telling us just make a plan?”

Bird, the departmental spokesperson, wrote that CFS workers were also evacuees in stressful situations of their own at the time.

“We are very appreciative of staff who are going above and beyond in their efforts to provide services and support to children, youth, families, and foster caregivers,” he told Cabin Radio.

Agatha is particularly upset for those foster families who did not have cars and were told to line up to register at Yellowknife’s Sir John Franklin School for flights out.

“Some of them had, like, five kids, trying to stand in line for eight hours with all of their kids,” she said.

“How do you stand in line with that many children for that many hours? Some of them didn’t even get on the flight that day, and they had to go home and come back the next day.”

She hopes lessons are learned.



“They could have said: ‘These kids are more vulnerable than most. Let’s just be proactive here and take care of these guys.’ I hope that they’re more prepared taking people back.”

‘Most people being supported’

Tammy Roberts is executive director of the Foster Family Coalition of the NWT, a registered charity that delivers support to foster families across the territory.

Roberts told Cabin Radio she was unaware of any specific issues raised as of August 26, and “very few” caregivers had reached out with concerns.

“Most people I’ve talked to say they’re being supported,” Roberts said, She asked anyone who has concerns or needs help to email her.

“There are always going to be some screw-ups,” she allowed, “and everyone’s doing their best.”

Noting staff had their own families and households to look after, she added: “There has already been talk of the logistics of returning with foster families.”

Bird said CFS “will make every effort to align with the wider-GNWT approach” for returning families when the time comes, “and ensure that children, youth, families, and foster caregivers are supported in whichever way they choose to make their way home.” 

He said CFS staff are already stationed in the busiest southern evacuation centres and will be “on the ground” in Yellowknife to support returning families. 



Young adults, foster caregivers and families can also apply to other funding sources, Bird wrote, including GNWT assistance for evacuees and support provided by insurers. He said other funding may be accessed through the Canadian Red Cross, Northern Mosaic Network, Northern Birthwork Collective and Indigenous Governments.

Around-the-clock emergency numbers for families include:

Yellowknife: 867-445-1092
Fort Smith: 867-621-1122
Tłı̨chǫ Community Services Agency: 867-686-2500
Hay River: 867-875-7012