N.W.T. Child and Family Services audits are unusable, after computer system crashes

Data from a year’s worth of audits done on Child and Family Services in the N.W.T. has been deemed unusable, after the computer program the auditors used broke.

Data gathered on how workers handled children at risk not 'sufficiently reliable to act upon'

Child and Family Services advisor Andy Langford, left, Minister of Health and Social Services Glen Abernethy and deputy minister Debbie DeLancey brief a standing committee on the computer crash. (Hilary Bird/CBC)

Data from a year's worth of audits done on Child and Family Services in the N.W.T. has been deemed unusable, after the computer program the auditors used broke.

The Department of Health and Social Services told MLAs about the issue on Thursday during a presentation to the Standing Committee on Social Development.

"The tool's broken," Health and Social Services minister Glen Abernethy told the committee.

When asked if any of the data from the audits was useable, an advisor to Child and Family Services, Andy Langford, answered, "None that I would consider sufficiently reliable to act upon."

Yellowknife MLA Julie Green asked repeatedly if the committee could see any of the data but Abernethy refused to release it, saying it wasn't in a readable format. To get the data into a readable format, he said, would require too much work for departmental staff.

The annual audit of N.W.T. Child and Family Services was a recommendation made by the federal auditor general in his scathing 2014 report on the way the territorial government handles child protection.

The auditor general found child and family services workers in the territory were not following key procedures to keep children safe, such as properly screening foster parents and following up on reports of children at risk.

Computer program faulty, staff not trained

In response, the Department of Health and Social Services designed a special computer program to compile data from N.W.T. communities on the number of children in care, cases being investigated, and reports of neglect or abuse.

Once compiled, teams in Yellowknife would analyze the data to make sure rules and procedures were being followed.

In April 2015, small audit teams made up of Health and Social Services employees began using that computer program to audit each of the seven regional health authorities in the N.W.T. at the time.

But Langford said the audit teams ran into a number of problems.

"The audit tool was an electronic database… the difficulty we discovered was that not all of our field offices had the program on their computers," Langford told the committee.

"We had to load the program onto laptops which were carried around by the audit teams in the field and I honestly don't understand exactly what happened except that in some regions the computers would work and in other regions they were less reliable."

The data from the computer program then had to be downloaded and analyzed, Langford said.

"In order to analyze the data, the analysts had to write what are called scripts which would extract information from the program and we ran into problems at the department level in terms of staff familiarity in being able to write those scripts."

Langford also said that as the year went on, Child and Family Services also made changes to improve some practices. That meant the standards that the audit was monitoring were constantly changing, Langford said.

Consider this a trial run: minister

It's not known how much money the territorial government spent on these audits but both Abernethy and Langford said the department has created a new computer program to be used in the future.

"In many respects it is better to view the year's audits as a trial run," Abernethy said. "And to be honest we did learn many things. As a result of the crash and the development of the new tool we have a better tool."

The department says it will be using the new and improved computer program to perform the 2016-2017 audits beginning in April. It hopes to have those audits completed in June.


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