A foster care reform march is planned for Yellowknife on Monday, as both Child and Family Services and the Foster Family Coalition say the system is improving.
Sandra Noel, who spent nine years in care in Yellowknife as a child, said the march would begin at 1pm from the Ruth Inch Memorial Pool parking lot before heading downtown.
“I saw a lot of issues with the foster care system. I want real change,” Noel told Cabin Radio. “I want reform, I want to make changes for the better for everyone involved.”
The NWT’s Child and Family Services division was the subject of a highly critical report from the Auditor General of Canada in 2018.
That report stated social workers lost contact with almost nine in every 10 children placed in foster care, didn’t carefully screen where children were placed, and frequently failed to take basic steps like consulting criminal record checks.
Then-health minister Glen Abernethy faced a vote of confidence in the aftermath of the report’s publication, and reform of NWT child protection has been a stated priority of the territorial government ever since.
In January this year, the Foster Family Coalition of the NWT – which represents the territory’s caregivers – said the NWT’s provisions for foster families remained “dysfunctional” and “broken,” placing children in danger and pushing adults to exhaustion and defeat.
Tammy Roberts, the coalition’s executive director, said six months ago conditions were “the worst I’ve ever seen, by far.”
But, speaking to Cabin Radio earlier this month, both Roberts and the new leader of Child and Family Services said things had recently changed for the better.
“Since [January] I have noticed a lot better communication, and I think communication is the key to everything,” Roberts said.
“The changes that were happening at the top, we weren’t really seeing at the bottom. So opening that line of communication up – through our organization, so that we’re able to distribute the information to our caregivers – has, I think, been the turning point for that.
“Having a voice in the changes that are happening has really contributed to opening up that communication and making a better working relationship.”
More staff, more capacity
Colette Prevost, who took over at Child and Family Services in August last year, said extra resources were starting to have a positive impact.
Prevost said her division was now better-staffed and had more capacity.
“That’s probably the most significant thing that has changed the system,” she told Cabin Radio. “Now we are focusing on making sure that we have those resources in the right places, doing the right level of work.”
In particular, Prevost is trying to address the auditor general’s concern that approaches to child protection were not consistent across the territory.
“Not everyone in the territory was having the same level of service. We had some families who had very little contact with social workers helping with their families,” she said.
“The biggest change on the ground is equitable distribution of services and available services at the time that it’s needed. So more frequent contacts with children and youth and making sure we can also plan with families, so we have fewer kids coming into care when the families are quite able to care for them if given the right resources.”
Noel, planning Monday’s march, said she was aware of staff “working behind the scenes for reform” but would wait to see what she termed “real change, not just politicians talking.”
“I’m hopeful,” Noel said, “but I don’t want to get my hopes up and then nothing actually changes. I really want to hold them accountable and make sure change is happening.”
Pandemic shuts down monitoring systems
The Covid-19 pandemic has posed a fresh challenge to Child and Family Services: a loss of the means social workers rely on to monitor the wellbeing of children.
The closure of NWT schools until the fall, alongside the cessation of organized sports and a lack of community gatherings, means it’s harder to keep an eye on kids, Prevost said.
“All the things we rely on to have eyes on kids, and to be the social network for children, ended very drastically,” she said, adding social workers “became very concerned” at the lack of reports coming in.
The NWT had, however, seen an increase in the number of community members stepping into that gap and contacting social workers when things seemed amiss, said Prevost.
“That was really heartening, because we knew that in most communities, the communities had their eyes on the kids,” she said.
“Most of the time, we rely on these systems not only for advising or for reporting of potential child maltreatment, but we rely on them for other things. Schools provide incredible support for food security for families. Children go to school and they eat, they’re provided with nutrition and they’re provided with structure.
“We don’t want to be the default community safety net. We want to be there if we need to but nothing replaces the natural supports and networks that exist in a community, and that’s what we’re seeing – we’re seeing it through Elders, we’re seeing it through community members who are picking up in areas where the natural, big systems have stood down.”
Meanwhile, both Roberts and Prevost reported an increase in the number of people stepping forward to offer their help as foster caregivers during the pandemic.
“We’ve seen just people in general inquiring about what they can do. We worked with social services to come up with a way to approve homes during the pandemic, sending videos of your home, show what your space is like, doing all those things remotely so that we were following the guidelines,” said Roberts.
“The people that came forward to help out with respite for our homes, that was the big one. There was no respite for our homes, but definitely we need it during a pandemic, especially if you have a number of kids or a single caregiver.
“Our staff went from, like, three people in my office and I now have 35 people on the payroll because we’re providing respite services for caregivers across the territory.”
Prevost said: “The most heartening thing that we saw is the number of foster caregivers who stood up and said, ‘I can support children. This is important. We need support but we are here to help.’ More people than we’ve seen ever before stood up and said they were here to help.”