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Here's how N.W.T. MLAs, auditor general's office reacted to foster parents' horror stories

Caitlin Cleveland, the chair of the Committee on Social Development, says she'll prioritize the first-hand accounts of families in the foster care system.

MLAs have power to hold department to account, says author of report on N.W.T. child welfare

Jacobson says he understands what foster families go through and that he wants more supports for biological families, foster families and support workers. (Mario De Ciccio/Radio-Canada)

N.W.T. politicians are responding to criticisms launched at the territory's troubled child welfare system, which foster families say is failing them and the children they care for.

"This is not going to go away," said Jackie Jacobson, MLA for Nunakput.

On Friday, CBC published a letter from the Foster Family Coalition of the N.W.T., which alleged child protection workers had verbally abused and, in some cases, intentionally misled foster parents about children in their care.

In subsequent interviews with CBC, foster parents described the department failing to take responsibility for children in their care going missing, or follow up on serious allegations of abuse.

"I know the frustrations that some [foster parents] are going through," said Jacobson. "The whole system has got to be looked at."

Jacobson says he wants support for social workers, parents and families themselves who are navigating a system that is "short staffed across the board." 

Everything comes down to the safety of children, said Jacobson. 

MLA Caitlin Cleveland heads up the committee that will review and respond to a letter from the Foster Family Coalition. (Mario De Ciccio/Radio-Canada)

The CBC contacted every sitting regular MLA to speak for this story. Members were in a budget meeting all day Friday.

Kam Lake MLA Caitlin Cleveland, reflecting on the accounts from foster families this week, said in an email that it was "very difficult to hear stories of people hurting, especially children."

Cleveland chairs the territorial government's Committee on Social Development, which will review and respond to the Foster Family Coalition's letter.

Foster families' accounts will be prioritized, says MLA

"I will continue to prioritize hearing their first-hand accounts to support the improvement of the N.W.T. foster care system," she wrote, thanking foster families for their trust and time.

"We need to ensure we are properly supporting social workers, birth families, and foster families to make sure we are supporting the success of our children."

It's a similar story unfortunately.- Glen Wheeler, Author of auditor general's report

The social development committee was previously tasked with reviewing the territorial government's response to the 2018 auditor general's report, authored by Glen Wheeler.

Reached for comment on the Foster Family Coalition's letter, Wheeler said if change is going to happen, it might come down to political will.

The auditor general doesn't "have the power under the legislation to force a department to do anything," he said.

"It's up to MLAs as the elected representatives of the people and the minister of the department … to make sure the recommendations are fully implemented," said Wheeler.

When lead auditor Glen Wheeler released the 2018 report into the N.W.T.'s child welfare system he was 'deeply disappointed in the results' and criticized the worsening of conditions since another report from 2014. (Alex Brockman/CBC)

CBC reports about the treatment of foster families "resonate with what we heard [in 2018]," he said. 

The last auditor general's report found there were no dedicated staff to manage the delivery of foster care across the territories. The system also didn't have support for caregivers beyond a daily rate provided to families, he said. 

Asked whether a future report would consult foster families, Wheeler said the auditor general spoke to the Foster Family Coalition in 2014 and in 2018.

"I'm sure individual foster parents had important things to say … but the coalition, as a representative of the parents, was able to provide us with the perspective and information we needed to do our work," he said. 

No plans for another audit: AG

As of now, the auditor general has no plans for another audit. 

It follows up on reviews, usually leaving a few years between reports, especially if recommendations need time to fulfil, said Wheeler.

"Given the severity of what we found in 2014 and the fact that when we went back in 2018, the situation in some ways was worse, it certainly is an area that we are going to continue to monitor," he said.

The Auditor General of Canada has audited child and family services federally, and reviewed Yukon's delivery of child and family services.

Asked whether any jurisdictions it audits are performing well, Wheeler said, "if you look at other audit reports from other jurisdictions, it becomes obvious that most jurisdictions are struggling in this area."

"It's a similar story unfortunately," he said. 

Examine policies, says Yellowknife MLA

Yellowknife North MLA Rylund Johnson says the government has to look at properly supporting communities and biological families. (Mario De Ciccio/Radio-Canada)

Yellowknife North MLA Rylund Johnson said people who foster children are functionally frontline workers, but "we don't often treat them as such."

Johnson wants the department to explain which of the coalition's recommendations it will take, and for the ones it rejects, he wants them to explain "why we are not taking the suggestions from the people who are on the front lines."

He said MLAs have to support the department, and simultaneously, create policies that enable Indigenous children to stay in their communities. 

At the end of the day, the state is taking Indigenous children from their homes.- MLA Rylund Johnson

"At the end of the day, the state is taking Indigenous children from their homes. It's always going to be the most difficult thing we do as a government."

After the 2018 auditor general report, the territorial government increased funding to child and family services. 

Auditor general reports, said Johnson, measure the government on how well it follows its own policies, but not whether they are the "right policies."

"That, from a political level, is the conversation we need to be having," he said.

About the Author

Avery Zingel

Reporter

Avery Zingel is a reporter with CBC North in Yellowknife. She is a graduate of the Carleton University School of Journalism and Political Science. Email her at avery.zingel@cbc.ca or follow her on Twitter @averyzingel.