Caregivers say the NWT's provisions for foster families are "dysfunctional" and "broken," placing children in danger and pushing adults to exhaustion and defeat.
In a letter to the NWT's health and social services minister, the Foster Family Coalition of the Northwest Territories listed dozens of problems said to be facing caregivers.
The letter was sent after a group of 16 foster caregivers met for the first time in Yellowknife last month, together with leaders from the NWT's Child and Family Services team and the territory's health authority.
The 27-page letter received a one-and-a-half page response from the minister, Diane Thom, which carried the same wording as a news release sent to reporters on December 18.
The minister's response stated 33 percent of action items in a plan to improve Child and Family Services have been completed. Those action items, published last year, followed damning back-to-back investigations of the service by the Office of the Auditor General of Canada.
Tammy Roberts, the executive director of the Foster Family Coalition for the past 10 years – and a foster caregiver for longer – said the system has only worsened over time.
Roberts said the decline began when the departments of health and social services, previously separate, fused in the 1990s. Conditions are now "the worst I've ever seen, by far," she said.
The coalition blames much of that deterioration on chronic staff shortages, miscommunication, and a lack of accountability.
In short, said Roberts, the system is in "mass chaos." She said better planning and preventative measures, alongside more collaborative work with families, would ensure the system does not damage the children it is intended to protect.
In the Yellowknife region, alone, Roberts said she knew of three homes that stopped fostering the past year and others who are considering quitting.
"Our homes are very crushed. I think they're weighed down with all of the pressure from not having support on the ground," Roberts said.
One caregiver told the CBC their teenage foster daughter was missing for days before police eventually spurred Child and Family Services into action. The caregiver said she only discovered the girl had been found after calling RCMP for an update. The girl had been placed with another foster family, the caregiver said, without any notification.
Another family said the Department of Health and Social Services had "burned a bridge" by sending three children for an emergency placement who were "totally infested" scabies.
"They were basically just dumped on our doorstep. We were completely blindsided," a foster caregiver told the CBC. The family ceased fostering as a result, saying this was the latest in a series of incidents.
A foster parent told NNSL a young child apprehended from a mother using illegal drugs had been "returned ... back to the mother who was using," within 24 hours of the initial intervention, as no alternative home could be found.
Roberts said the number of caregiver homes in the NWT had dropped from 230 in 2011 to 156 in 2019, mirroring a national trend.
The Foster Family Coalition's letter, much like the two recent audits of Child and Family Services, details a range of disturbing reports, including a child going missing for more than a week.
The coalition recommended a range of changes, including the creation of a child's commissioner and advocate in the NWT who would act independently of government. A child advocate has been recommended for the NWT in a series of reports spanning decades but, in August, then-health minister Glen Abernethy said: "Our staff have been quite busy [with other action items related to child welfare and] as a result, we have not done that additional research on a child advocate at this point."
The coalition expects to meet the new minister in the near future. But caregivers are "not hopeful," said Roberts. "They just say none of this is going to make a difference in the end."
The coalition's letter requests more supports for children with disorders or disabilities; help for youth transition between homes or from a home to a form of treatment; and a much better response when children are reported missing.
Roberts said the high-profile case of a child going missing for more than a week while receiving treatment in the south is not a one-off issue. "That seems to be a common occurrence when kids go south – to be AWOL and be running," she said.
Even when children age out of care, planning for that transition is consistently left until the last minute, Roberts said: "I can't imagine what it would feel like to be approaching your 19th birthday and not having anybody sit down and say, well in advance, what the plan is."
The majority of children want to live with their biological parents, the letter states, but there are few services to help parents when their children are brought back into the home. When the family is reunified, the letter states "child protection workers do not often check up on the children to ensure they are safe and healthy."
'It was their birthday, and you missed it'
Yellowknife's foster caregivers feel they are not set up for success from the outset, the coalition states, as there is no "essential training" or continuing training for foster caregivers.
Caregivers report they are often not given medical files or other information about foster children. Schools are often not told by child protection workers if a child has been placed in care.
"There's nothing worse than taking in a child and not having information, and then you find out a week later that it was their birthday. And you missed it," Roberts said.
According to Roberts, caregivers end up having to beg, complain, or ask repeatedly to be heard in order to access services on behalf of children. Meanwhile, foster families have said they fear retribution if they speak out about deficiencies.
Conditions for caregivers are so stressful that Cabin Radio understands two of the caregivers who attended the December 12 meeting had left their jobs, unable to cope with both the pressures of the workplace and the foster care system.
A file photo of Minister of Health and Social Services Diane Thom in October 2019. Sarah Pruys/Cabin Radio
The coalition placed particular attention on what it terms a "dysfunctional" Yellowknife office. "We see the social workers in the Yellowknife office spinning like you would not believe," Roberts said.
The letter outlines high turnover among front-line staff as well as upper level staff switching roles frequently. "I see social workers quitting left, right, and centre," Roberts said. What results, the letter outlines, is a lack of communication between all parties, slow responses to caregiver needs, and a lack of planning for the journey of children in care.
Despite numerous territorial government responses to the Auditor General's findings of the past five years – including a 70-point improvement plan and $3.3 million for new positions – Roberts said none of this has reached children and caregivers.
"Why are we wasting all of our time making all of these policies and standards that nobody follows? It looks good at a certain level, but it's not trickling down," she said.
The letter alleges problematic staff either remain in post or move to a new position, without complaints appearing to be addressed. A fleshed-out grievance process for caregivers will be an issue raised in discussions with the minister, Roberts said.
What happens now?
Health and social services minister Diane Thom declined an interview request from Cabin Radio, issuing a statement in which she said ensuring the safety of youth in care was taken "very seriously" by her department. The statement acknowledged the "crucial role" of foster families in that regard.
"Right now we are working with the Foster Family Coalition to schedule a meeting so that we can discuss the important concerns they have raised," Thom stated, adding she would not comment on specific concerns raised until that meeting had taken place.
Two other MLAs, Kam Lake's Caitlin Cleveland and Nahendeh's Shane Thompson – the environment minister – are also understood to have been involved in meetings with caregivers.
Thompson could not be reached on Friday. Cleveland said by email she is reviewing the coalition's letter with members of the legislature's social development committee, which she chairs, and the committee will issue a response in due course.
"I am thankful for the trust and time of the foster families over the last few weeks," Cleveland wrote, "and will continue to prioritize hearing their first-hand accounts to support the improvement of the NWT foster care system."