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This photo of two boys, sleeping outside the Iqaluit NorthMart store on July 26, has raised concerns about child welfare and social programs in Nunavut. ((Submitted by Evie Eegeesiak))

Nunavut's social workers are doing what they can to help children in need of care, despite a severe staff shortage, a government official said.

About 50 per cent of all social worker positions in Nunavut are vacant, and there's a lack of supervisors for social programs in some areas, said Barbara Stevens, Nunavut's director of health and social programs in Rankin Inlet.

Stevens was responding to public outrage and concern sparked by photographs, published in local media this week, of two young boys sleeping on the pavement outside the NorthMart store in Iqaluit in late July.

The images, which show one boy curled up in shorts and the other huddled against a garbage can, have raised concerns about a lack of social programs to help vulnerable children in Nunavut.

"We're doing the very best we can in difficult circumstances," Stevens told CBC News on Thursday.

"Yes, we are significantly understaffed, and we struggle with that because it limits our ability to develop new programs and to work with the communities to address some of the larger issues. But our focus is always first on the children in need of protection."

Bringing up workers from South

The territorial Health and Social Services Department is investigating the NorthMart case.

Stevens said the department is getting help to ease the shortage of social workers, bringing up workers from southern Canada on casual or agency contracts.

The government is also working on programs to train social workers close to home, but Stevens said that will take a while.

While Stevens said she cannot comment specifically on the NorthMart case, she said children are always the department's top priority despite the staff shortage.

"The social workers' primary responsibility is always going to be to be child protection," she said. "They will drop everything in order to ensure that children receive the services that they require."

Co-operation needed

Officials with Nunavut Tunngavik Inc., the territory's Inuit land-claims organization, say there's no sense in pointing fingers at social workers, the government or the police when it comes to the well-being of children.

James Eetoolook, NTI's first vice-president, said everyone should work together to improve child welfare.

"The communities, the people, the Inuit, the government have to go hand-in-hand in order to tackle the social problems in Nunavut," he said.

Eetoolook said Inuit need to revive their traditions of caring for one another — something he says is lacking these days.

In particular, he said, parents have to take responsibility and improve their parenting, and ensure children are loved and safe.