Foster children and other kids in care are not being adequately monitored and investigations into alleged abuse are taking too long and are slow to start, Nova Scotia's auditor general said in a report that highlights failings in the province's child welfare system.
Jacques Lapointe said he looked at 140 investigations into allegations of abuse or neglect involving kids in care and found that 12 per cent of those probes did not start within the required time.
In one high-risk case, it took staff three days to respond when it should have been acted on the same day. In other lower risk cases, the responses ranged from 58 days up to 130 days when they should have been acted on in 21 days.
Because of that, Lapointe said the Department of Community Services "cannot be certain the child is safe."
"Lapses in this work impair the department's ability to protect children's interests," he said. "Children are at risk the minute they are taken away … so you have to pay attention and monitor to make sure nothing goes wrong along the way."
He said the investigations themselves also exceeded the expected time of six weeks, with one case going on for 47 weeks as of last September.
About 27 per cent of the cases the auditor general tested had gaps of three weeks when no work was done in the investigation.
The auditor general also pointed out two cases he felt should have been investigated, but weren't. The department later agreed and the cases were looked into.
'The communication is ongoing'
Community Services Minister Denise Peterson-Rafuse said she was aware of the problems, but insisted that social workers triage cases and intervene as quickly as possible when a child is in urgent need of help.
"If a child is in a crisis situation, that communication is ongoing and the staff are right on top of it," she said.
But she admitted that the routine, regular contact between social workers and children in care is not taking place as often as it should in some cases.
"That's where his concern is with the children, is to make sure that contact continues and we agree with that."
Lapointe said social workers were not making contact with children within the required 30-day time period in 74 per cent of the cases, and all but two of the 68 cases he tested had either minor or significant deficiencies when it came to complying with the policies of the Department of Community Services.
He said 24 per cent of the foster cases he looked at also didn't have care plans and many of those that did were late.
Peterson-Rafuse said the department has accepted all of Lapointe's recommendations, including updating legislation around neglect, doing investigations in the appropriate timeframe and ensuring children are checked on within 30 days.
The auditor general also looked at expense claims for several boards and agencies, finding that many filed inadequate documentation if submitting any at all.
He found the Nova Scotia Liquor Commission and the Waterfront Development Corp. had higher rates of insufficient filing by either not providing receipts, evidence of payment or the reason for the expenditure.
Lapointe found serious weaknesses in the Transportation Department's oversight of its parts inventory, repair work and measures to guard against the theft or loss of expensive equipment.
"Controls and processes to safeguard inventory — parts and other equipment — and to ensure the equipment is well maintained and properly repaired either do not exist or are ignored," Lapointe said.
Transportation Minister Maurice Smith said he agrees with Lapointe and the department has already implemented 12 of the 38 recommendations he made.
In a review of how the government responded to previous recommendations he has made, Lapointe said senior managers are failing to correct deficiencies he has identified in their programs.
He also found the government's public update on how it is implementing changes is unreliable.
Lapointe found that only 41 per cent of the recommendations he made in 2010 have been implemented. His latest report makes 76 recommendations.
Liberal Diana Whalen said the lack of action does nothing to address safety concerns raised by Lapointe about nursing home care, P3 schools and the mental health care system.
"That shows a huge disregard for the importance of every one of the departments he's looked at," she said.