The NWT's new social services minister says swift action will be taken to address dozens of complaints from the territory's foster caregivers – but can't yet reveal what that action will be.
At a December meeting, foster caregivers in Yellowknife said the territory's Child and Family Services agency was "dysfunctional" and in a state of "mass chaos." A subsequent 27-page letter from the Foster Family Coalition of the NWT detailed concern for the safety of children and exhaustion of caregivers.
That letter initially received a short, generalized written response from Diane Thom, who became the territory's health and social services minister in November following the fall election.
On Thursday, speaking to Cabin Radio, Thom said she would work to mend relations with the Foster Family Coalition and hear more from foster parents.
Thom said a meeting with the coalition would take place on January 30 and she would be asking the coalition to join a working group dedicated to planning "quick action."
The minister said her department must immediately respond to concerns raised about an absence of caregiver training, deficiencies in respite care, damaged lines of communication between social workers and caregivers, and issues related to reimbursement of caregivers' expenses.
"We can't take those [concerns] lightly. We need to start looking at some of the recommendations," Thom said. "They've been working within our system for years and if we're not listening to them, then there is not trust – and we need to start regaining that."
Tammy Roberts, executive director of the Foster Family Coalition, had earlier said the many concerns raised by caregivers pointed to a system in crisis that was adversely affecting the children it should protect.
Caregivers, too, said they were suffering. Two Yellowknife foster parents said they had left their jobs as they could not cope with the twin pressures of working and navigating the foster caregiving system.
"Our homes are very crushed," said Roberts last week. "I think they're weighed down with all of the pressure from not having support on the ground."
'It will take time'
The Foster Family Coalition says workers at Child and Family Services suffer from constant turnover and burnout. Some positions, the coalition said, had been left unfilled for years.
Asked how her department would address these issues, Thom said the concerns were hard to hear and "shouldn't happen, which only means that we need to do a better job" – without specifying how that might be achieved.
Thom said she had yet to speak with frontline Child and Family Services workers. She said her first step was to hear the coalition's concerns and respond to the group's letter.
"At this point, we've just basically been working with the departmental managers that are directly tied to the foster coalition," she said.
"Quality improvement is ongoing and it will take time. We need to start focusing on the ground."
The NWT government has already issued an action plan and assigned more funding to address the latest of two highly critical reports from the Auditor General of Canada. However, Roberts said the system is now the worst it has been in her nearly three decades as a foster caregiver – adding she had seen little sign of change since the action plan and funding were announced in August.
Thom did not answer directly when asked whether her department's action plan will change as this latest dialogue develops.
"None of this should happen," the minister said. "As a department, we need to do a better job."