OPINION | N.W.T. Child and Family Services is broken, will MLAs be able to fix it?

After two damning auditor general reports and no real changes, revelations from the Foster Family Coalition of the Northwest Territories' recent letter constitute the latest chapter in this sad story, writes former N.W.T. MLA Kieron Testart.

Despite action plans and new funding, foster care and social services remain in crisis, says former MLA

After two damning auditor general reports, and no real changes, it should come as no surprise that the Northwest Territories government is failing foster parents and children in care, says former N.W.T. MLA Kieron Testart. (Submitted)

The Northwest Territories government is failing foster parents and children in care — but is anyone surprised? 

After two damning auditor general reports, barely four years apart, and no real changes, revelations from the Foster Family Coalition of the Northwest Territories' recent 27-page letter simply constitute the latest chapter in this sad story.

For more than eight years, we've heard horror stories of the mistreatment of children. We've also heard first-hand accounts from front-line caregivers about being misled and verbally abused by child protection workers. No wonder so many have lost confidence that the government will meaningfully act to fix Child and Family Services. We've heard these promises again and again.

The auditor general's office says it's up to elected representatives to make necessary fixes to the system. It will take determined political will on the part of MLAs to make that happen. 

Politicians often treat issues at Child and Family Services as an inconvenience — problems that can be managed with action plans and rosy speeches — rather than as a real crisis. Slap on a few Band-Aid policies, add some funding, and hope the problem goes away.

Glenn Wheeler, the lead auditor on the 2018 report, said he was 'deeply disappointed' in the results. The 41-page audit report shows a bureaucracy struggling — and in most cases failing — to implement recommendations from four years ago. (Alex Brockman/CBC)

Diane Thom, the minister of health and social services, first refused to meet with the Foster Family Coalition. She changed her mind only after the group's searing letter went public.

Premier Caroline Cochrane, apparently, was too busy to speak to the matter, but encouraged foster parents "not to lose hope." Most reasonable people would agree that the government leader should respond instantly to alarming issues involving the children of the Northwest Territories.

Tone-deaf responses

The tone-deaf responses from Thom and Cochrane are frustrating, and echo the same hollow excuses proffered by previous governments.

Thom, a political rookie who inherited these problems from the previous minister, can perhaps be forgiven. But the premier should know better. Cochrane knows intimately the problems in Child and Family Services, having served as a minister in the last cabinet when the health minister of the day faced a confidence vote following the second damning auditor general report. 

If this was Ottawa or the provinces, the opposition parties of the legislature would pounce on the government over this scandal. There would be weeks of hard questions in the House and motions compelling the government to act.

But this isn't Ottawa, and in the N.W.T.'s consensus-style system, I expect things will play out quite differently. Cabinet will close ranks around their colleague Thom, and she will rely on existing action plans and strategies. Thom will say it is too soon to expect results. Cochrane will lean on her bona fides as a social worker to deflect criticisms of how her government is handling the situation. 

Most reasonable people would agree that Premier Caroline Cochrane, as government leader, should respond instantly to alarming issues involving the children of the Northwest Territories, Testart writes. (Mario De Ciccio/Radio-Canada)

Regular MLAs, for their part, will offer words of support to foster parents, caregivers and front-line workers. They will try to resolve this crisis through closed-door meetings and hushed chats with their cabinet colleagues. None of this will give the public confidence that our elected leaders are doing what's best for children in care. 

Prioritize protecting children

Politicians must prioritize protecting children over re-election. Regular MLAs must pressure cabinet to take decisive action, even if it means ruffling a few feathers. Camaraderie among decision-makers is valuable, but good relations alone won't resolve this crisis. 

Showing compassion and understanding to long-suffering caregivers, however, is a good place to start. 

A child at Camp Connections, a summer camp organized by the Foster Family Coalition. The coalition says child protection workers provide caregivers with incomplete information and, in some cases, intentionally misled them. (Kate Kyle/CBC)

Thom should immediately meet with the Foster Family Coalition and officials in the Child and Family Services system, including front-line workers. Cabinet must direct the public service to rethink the child welfare system. Incremental changes aren't working. Sporadically hiring new staff isn't working. To see real change, the entire system needs an overhaul, taking into account recommendations of the auditor general, standing committees, the Foster Family Coalition, front-line workers and caregivers. The outcomes from these changes must be measurable and realistic, with clear marching orders to public servants.

Additionally, cabinet must make all relevant documents and witnesses available to the Standing Committee on Social Development without political interference, and the committee must ensure its review of Child and Family Services takes place in public, and that those who testify are protected from reprisal. 

This is the first real test of the 19th Legislative Assembly and Cochrane's cabinet. We elect leaders to effect change and get better results for our communities. The time for bold action is now. There is nothing more important to Northerners than their children and we cannot afford to fail them again.

This column is part of CBC's Opinion section. For more information about this section, please read this editor's blog and our FAQ.


Kieron Testart lives in Yellowknife and is a former member of the N.W.T. Legislative Assembly. He is a frequent contributor to political discussions in the North and holds a Bachelor of Arts in political science from the University of Lethbridge and a Certificate in Parliamentary Governance from McGill University.


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