The auditor’s report found many of the services provided to children in care got worse after the territorial government, responding to a 2014 report by the same office, took mostly administrative steps and put in senior staff without the right experience.
Among other failings, the report found social workers were not in regular contact with nine out of 10 children in care; the homes and guardians they were going to were not properly screened; and children were moved between foster homes an average of 12 times while in the system.
The new action plan is accompanied by $3.3 million, which Minister of Health and Social Services Glen Abernethy says will pay for new staff. This means 21 new positions, a third of them focused on training and policy development, with all others on the front line.
For the time being, the plan outlines 10 priority areas within the child protection system.
The territorial government believes progress had been made over the past year, including a review of 22 case files which gave the auditor general concern, a clarification of roles for front-line staff, and the establishment of a training team.
Responding to the newly published action plan this week, Yellowknife Centre MLA Julie Green said parts of the plan involving cultural safety were particularly promising. Elements of the plan include developing Indigenous child and family service workers and improving communications with Indigenous communities to improve care for families within their communities.
However, Green said the 70 action items identified within the 10 priority are far too many.
Those individual items range from reviewing whether children placed outside the territory are being contacted and their cases reviewed, to supporting communities to care for children, to training for all involved in the system, from foster caregivers and management.
“We feel that, at this time, the plan we have is doable within the two-year time limit,” Abernethy, the minister responsible, told Green.
He called the plan a “living document” which may change as the department finds areas where it may have overreached, or where timelines need to be modified.
Green, however, criticized what she felt to be an “almost single-minded focus on compliance” versus time front-line staff will spend with their “eyes on their clients.”
Green said she understood why this was a focus – a reaction to the auditor general’s report – yet she asked the minister for assurances that time with clients would improve.
“The outcome I most want to see is that mandatory check-ins and time with children in care are not only met, but exceeded,” she said.
Rent for in-crisis families
Abernethy said the 21 staff are an important start.
“There is a second ask for future years, that we invest in more positions with a greater focus on family advocates or family support workers,” he said, adding this will be a decision of the new NWT government elected on October 1.
Green asked how issues related to food and adequate housing, which can be factors in children entering the protection system, are being addressed.
In response, Abernethy used the example of a pilot project in Behchokǫ̀ where rent was paid for families in crisis to avoid a direct apprehension. That program may now be expanded.
“We’ve also been able to send parents out for treatment and provide short-term placement for kids with family,” the minister added. “There are many more things we can do. Many of them will be one-offs because every situation is different and we need to be flexible enough to do that.”
At the end of two years, the department will reassess how things are going. The aim, said Abernethy, is a “prevention-based system as opposed to the traditional apprehension-based system.”
The health department has not had time, Abernethy said, to look into the creation of a child and youth advocate – a position supported by Green. The minister said the money required for such a position may be “better spent on front-line delivery of services to family,” suggesting the recently created NWT ombud’s office may also be able to replicate some of the advocate’s role.
The territorial government has promised quarterly updates on the outcomes of the new action plan and unveiled an online progress tracker this week, which will track work on each of the 70 action items.
The tool currently shows 19 items completed and 51 on-track.