Yellowknifer editorial: F for 33% progress on foster care

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The chance of there being social workers in the NWT working the front lines of childcare and welfare that don’t care about children has to be zero, or close to it.

Empathy for others and a passion to help those unable to help themselves tend to be common traits among the sort of people who dedicate their lives to our most vulnerable. What they see day in and day out is not pretty, and it’s their job to help fix it. They deserve our respect and admiration, which is one reason why it’s maddening to hear complaints from foster families more than a year after the Auditor General of Canada’s damning report on child and family services, which follows another damning report from 2014.

The foster families Yellowknifer spoke to last week are at their wits’ end. Some have dropped out, or are threatening to do so – a fact borne out by the alarming revelation from Foster Family Coalition executive director Tammy Roberts that the number of foster families in the NWT has plummeted from 230 in 2011 to 156 in 2019.

Foster parents say they’re being harassed and lied to by childcare workers while being left in the dark about the needs of the children dumped on their doorstep – sometimes in the middle of the night. Listening to them, it’s clear the system is broken.

But digging into the 2018 auditor’s report makes it clear the rank-and-file of the health department, for the most part, are making the best of the chaos still being created by the decision-makers at the top.

The report states the Department of Health and Social Services not only hadn’t improved since the last report was delivered in 2014, but “many of the services provided to children” are worse. In fact, the department’s focus on “changing its processes without sufficiently considering the impact of introducing complex changes into an already overburdened system” in the intervening years actually contributed to the problem.

Some statistics were stark enough to be included in the report’s executive summary: one, that the NWT Health and Social Services Authorities, which oversees five regions including Yellowknife, did not maintain the required regular contact with almost 90 per cent of the children placed in foster care or other placements, compared to just under 60 per cent in the 2014 audit. Another, that the “majority” of foster homes were not adequately screened. Adding to that, 14 of 22 children placed were left in the care of people who hadn’t had a criminal record check performed on them.

Equally alarming was the note that the department still hadn’t even evaluated whether the funding and human resources allocated to health and social service authorities are enough to get the job done, “despite multiple commitments to do so.”

Reporting clearly remained a sore point for the hawks in the Auditor General’s office. And that’s a bad sign. History is strewn with the remains of organizations that didn’t spend the time and energy to take a step back and cast a critical eye on where all of their time and energy is going.

Health and Social Services Minister Diane Thom, along with her cabinet colleagues – all of them, save Premier Caroline Cochrane, are new to the executive council — has been handed an awful burden. But it is her burden and she is going to have to get results if she and her government hope to credibly claim that they’re fixing the problems identified in the auditor general’s report. 

So far, the news has been less than encouraging.

Her department’s own progress update, released Dec. 19 of last year, boasts that a third of the 70 action items identified in August had been “completed.” The other 47 were all classified as “on track.” The health department tried to cast a silver lining on the update just days before foster families stepped out in front of the government’s jargon and talking points and painted it all black.

The reality is, six years after the auditor general first raised the alarm, a 33 per cent completion rate can only be seen for what it is, a fail. Unfortunately for the children and their foster supports who find themselves needing the help of the GNWT, the higher-ups are still acting as if they get do-overs on their homework. 

There has been enough paper pushed around on this file to fill Yellowknife Bay. It’s high time for the people at the top of the social services division to realize their actions have consequences in the real world, not just on their quarterly metrics or performance reviews. Until this happens, in the words of the auditor general, “children will remain at risk.”

 

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