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N.W.T. gov't doesn't know what it needs to fix foster care: auditor general

Staff from the auditor general’s officer are back in Yellowknife, encouraging MLAs to hold the health department’s responsible when it comes to the delivery of child and family services in the Northwest Territories.

Committee of MLAs to give recommendations to health department in 2019

Auditor Glenn Wheeler and Erin Jellinek, director for the Office of the Auditor General, answered questions for the committee of government operations on Wednesday. (Randi Beers/CBC)

Staff from the auditor general's officer are back in Yellowknife, encouraging MLAs to hold the health department's feet to the fire when it comes to the delivery of child and family services in the Northwest Territories.

The first step to do this, said Glenn Wheeler, the lead auditor investigating how the Department of Health and Social Services delivers these services, is to figure out what resources are needed to do the work adequately.

In 2014, the auditor general released a damning report that found children in the territory's foster-care system were put at risk because child and family services workers were not doing required background checks, or doing the mandatory regular check-ups on children in care.

Each member of the standing committee on government operations had 10 minutes to ask questions. (Randi Beers/CBC)

"[These] problems were of sufficient concern, that we knew we had to re-examine child and family services," said Wheeler.

On Oct. 23, the Office of the Auditor General tabled a follow-up audit, which found in some cases problems within the system had gotten worse since 2014.

For example, child and family services workers were not keeping regular contact with children in care 90 per cent of the time, up from about 60 per cent in 2014.

On Wednesday, staff from the auditor general's office met with the standing committee on government operations to answer questions so the committee can come up with its own set of recommendations to improve child and family services.

Auditors alerted gov't of child in danger

Yellowknife MLA Julie Green asked which, out of the 11 recommendations contained in the auditor general's report, would be the top two or three the department should prioritize.

Wheeler responded with examples of small improvements that, if made, could extensively improve the system.

"A supervisor for out-of-territory placements," he said. "This needs to be acted on immediately because these children are at risk."

The standing committee of government operations will give recommendations to the Department of Health next year. (Randi Beers/CBC)

Wheeler pointed to an example where a child in a placement outside the N.W.T. was not appointed a supervisor, and ended up running away. The audit process was interrupted in this case so the federal auditors could alert the department's management that a child's health and safety was at immediate risk.

Hay River North MLA R.J. Simpson suggested the "lynchpin" to any successful action plan should be based on a determination of what resources are needed, which prompted wholehearted agreement from Wheeler.

"We wouldn't know [what needs to be done] because the department has to analyze the resources required — people, systems and financial," said Wheeler, adding this was recommended in 2014 and 2011 but the department has yet to do it.

I know what we'll have to hold [the department's] feet to the fire on.- Hay River North MLA R.J. Simpson

"I know what we'll have to hold [the department's] feet to the fire on," responded Simpson.

Wheeler acknowledged the department had started a preliminary analysis in 2014, but said the department was unable to provide evidence this work had been completed since then.

He acknowledged he might sound like a broken record, but every time the issue of analyzing resources came up during the two-hour meeting, Wheeler reiterated its importance.

"If that's not done by the time we come back for a follow-up, I'm afraid we will not have seen improvement," he said.

'We didn't engage widely enough'

On Wednesday afternoon, the Department of Health and Social Services gave an update to MLAs about the work it has done to improve child and family services.

Deputy minister Bruce Cooper said they agree with the "cluster of dynamics" identified by the auditor general.

"When I look at the process and answer the question as to why we didn't get it done right, it's because we didn't pay attention to training and practice support," he said. "We didn't engage widely enough."

Cooper said he is "absolutely convinced" that the plan moving forward will create measurable improvements.

In response to the auditor general's recommendation to conduct a detailed assessment of the division's financial and human resources needs, the department announced it has completed an "initial caseload analysis" and is recruiting front-line staff.

The department says it also plans to assess child and family services' "optimal team design and skill mix, workload, workflow and caseloads," but there is no mention of plans to assess its financial and human resources needs, according to the update.

The standing committee will table its own recommendations on child and family services in the next sitting of the Legislative Assembly. That's scheduled for Feb. 5.

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