North·Special Report

'We're done': Foster parents share horror stories about broken N.W.T. system

From a three-year battle to get one counselling session for a sexually-abused child, to children being dropped off in the middle of the night with scabies — four foster parents are sharing their stories of negligence and unsafe practices within the N.W.T. government's division of Child and Family Services.

This week, CBC News sat down with 4 foster parents and listened to their stories

Young child sitting in woman's lap.
A file photo of a mother and a child. In the wake of a damning letter from the Foster Family Coalition of the NWT, four parents spoke to CBC about their experiences with the N.W.T. government's system. All four parents said they no longer want to take in more foster children because of their experiences. (Chantal Dubuc/CBC)

From a three-year battle to get one counselling session for a sexually-abused child, to children being dropped off in the middle of the night with scabies  — four foster parents are sharing their stories of negligence and unsafe practices within the N.W.T. government's division of Child and Family Services.

These stories are coming out in the wake of a damning letter from the Foster Family Coalition of the Northwest Territories to the N.W.T. Department of Health and Social Services outlining dangerous gaps in the foster care system.

    CBC News has asked the Department of Health and Social Services for an interview, and provided them with a list of allegations from the letter. In an emailed response, the department said they would not be in a position to respond fully until after meeting with the Foster Family Coalition.

      "The minister and the department take the safety of children and their well-being very seriously," the response sent Thursday reads. "The minister has reached out to the [coalition] and we are working on a meeting date."

      The department was unable to discuss specific incidents due to privacy concerns, but did provide answers to several questions on a broader level. Their responses can be read in this story.

      They'd burned a bridge.- Bryan, Yellowknife foster parent

      CBC News cannot legally identify children in care or their foster and biological families. Any identifying details like ages and some timelines have been withheld, and the names of the foster parents who spoke to CBC have been changed. CBC was not able to independently verify each of the parents' claims.

      All four parents said they no longer want to take in more foster children because of their experiences.

      Here are their stories.

      Warning: This story contains content that may be disturbing to some readers.

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      Bryan's story: Children covered in sores

      For four years, Bryan and his wife opened their home to foster children. After an incident a few months ago, Bryan says they were so disappointed in Health and Social Services that they told the department they were finished.

      Bryan says it was around 8 p.m. one night when he got a call from a social worker. She had three young children who needed an emergency placement after being apprehended from their parents. He says he wasn't given any information, other than the children's ages.

      We were completely blindsided.- Bryan, Yellowknife foster parent

      Bryan says he raced to Walmart to get supplies like diapers and clothes while his wife waited at home for the children to arrive.

      "My wife called me and said the condition of the kids was unimaginable."

      When he arrived home, Bryan says he was shocked to see the children's bodies covered with sores.

      "We later found out it was scabies. The three kids were totally infested," he says, claiming that the kids didn't get medical attention. "They were basically just dumped on our doorstep. We were completely blindsided."

      The next day Bryan called Social Services and told them his family would no longer be accepting foster children.

      "We're done. We can't do this," he says. "They'd burned a bridge."

      A file photo of a child itching their arm. 'We later found out it was scabies. The three kids were totally infested,' says foster parent Bryan. (Shutterstock)

      Bryan's issues with the system didn't start that night. Earlier that year, he and his wife took in two children, both under the age of seven. Bryan says the children saw a counsellor, though their sessions were sporadic.

      One day after a session, he says his wife got an email.

      "The counsellor had emailed my wife to say, 'Something really weird, strange happened in counselling today.'"

      One of the children had apparently made a sexual comment, Bryan says.

      "In her email, the counsellor said she didn't think much of it until she saw the other child do the same thing.

      "She thought it was something the department should follow up on and told my wife that she would be putting forward a recommendation for an investigation," Bryan says.

      An investigation was flat out refused.- Bryan, Yellowknife foster parent

      He says weeks went by and Social Services didn't start an investigation. Bryan says he sent multiple emails to the department, MLAs and even met with the assistant deputy minister for Health and Social Services to demand an investigation be conducted. 

      He says he was told by the department that "there's no evidence," and therefore the counsellor's recommendation didn't warrant an investigation.

      "I was shocked, appalled, that the recommendation of a counsellor that there should be an investigation was flat out refused."

      Sarah's story: A missing teen

      One weekend, Sarah was in Edmonton when she says she got a call from her husband that their teenage foster daughter had gone missing.

      Her husband called the Health and Social Services emergency line. 

      "They said: 'Nope, don't call us. You need to call the RCMP,'" Sarah says.

      When he called the RCMP, Sarah says her husband was told it has to be Health and Social Services who makes a missing persons report, because the government is the child's legal guardian.

      "It literally was phone tag between the RCMP and Health and Social Services," Sarah says. 

      After several hours, Sarah says she made a plea to the police.

      We were her foster family for nine months and you couldn't call us to tell us she was found?- Sarah, Yellowknife foster parent

      "We pretty much said to the RCMP you have to do something because Social Services is not helping us."

      Her foster daughter went missing Thursday or Friday night, says Sarah.

      "It wasn't until Sunday night that the RCMP said [to Social Services], 'We're gonna put a missing report out publicly.' That's when [Social Services] started looking for her, actively involving themselves in the case."

      Sarah says she and her husband stayed up all of Sunday night worrying, waiting for the girl to come home.

      On Monday morning, Sarah says she called the RCMP for an update and to give them a piece of information to help with the search.

      "[The RCMP] said, 'Oh we don't need that, she's been found.'"

      Sarah says she later found out the girl had been found on Sunday and placed in another foster home by Social Services.

      She was outraged.

      A file photo of an anonymous woman. Sarah says the N.W.T. Department of Health and Social Services failed to contact her when her missing teen daughter was found. (Jean Delisle/CBC)

      "We were her foster family for nine months and you couldn't call us to tell us she was found?" Sarah says. 

      Sarah says during a meeting with herself and a social worker, the girl disclosed that she had spent the weekend at the home of a man in his 30's who supplied her and a friend with alcohol. The girl told them the man's name and address.

      Sarah says she later called the police to report the information but was told it had to come from Social Services because the government was the girl's legal guardian.

      Over the coming weeks, Sarah says she pleaded with the department to disclose the information to police. 

      Eleven months later, she says she finally got a meeting with a supervisor in the department. Sarah says she laid out what had happened and the supervisor said she would look into it and follow up with Sarah. 

      That meeting was four months ago. Sarah says she's heard nothing since.

      Lisa's story: Taken away without a call

      Sitting in her small two-bedroom Yellowknife apartment, Lisa tries to rock her infant foster daughter to sleep. It's 9 p.m. and she speaks in a hushed tone. Her other foster child is asleep in a room down the hall.

      Lisa is a single woman who has been fostering children for two years while working two jobs. She says two of the 10 foster children she's taken care of were placed back with their biological families without her knowledge. 

      Sunday evening, no kid. No information. Monday morning, nothing.- Lisa, Yellowknife foster parent

      The first child put in Lisa's care also became her longest placement. She began taking care of him when he was an infant. He returned to his biological family a few months ago when he was two years old.

      "[He's] my baby boy. [He] will always be my baby boy," Lisa says.

      Throughout his short life, the young boy has had a host of health issues. Lisa averaged one night a week in the emergency room with him. She would often leave the hospital in the morning and head straight to work.

      But she says she truly lost faith in the system at one of the child's medical appointments. 

      Lisa says the medical professional told her he would no longer be treating the boy as he was returning to his biological family. The medical professional said a social worker told him this news.

      No one from Social Services had told Lisa. 

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      The same thing, Lisa says, happened with her next foster child.

      She says she went to pick up the child, a toddler, from daycare and one of the workers mentioned the boy's apparent upcoming sleepover with his biological father — a sleepover Lisa says her social worker didn't tell her about. 

      When they did tell her, they said the child would be going for a one-night sleepover with his biological father on a Thursday night. On Friday morning, Lisa says she got a text from Social Services that the boy would be staying for the weekend. 

      A file photo of an anonymous woman. Lisa says a one-night sleepover for one of her foster children with the child's biological father turned into a reunification that she wasn't informed about until days later. (Jean Delisle/CBC)

      Come Sunday night, Lisa says she had heard nothing from social workers about when the boy would be returning to her.

      "Sunday evening, no kid. No information. Monday morning, nothing," Lisa says.

      Lisa says she contacted the same daycare worker to see if they'd heard anything.

      The daycare worker told her the biological father had been granted custody of his son — a fact that would be confirmed by Lisa's social worker days later.

      Pam's story: A fight for counselling

      Pam has been a foster parent to dozens of kids over the last 20 years, some of whom she has ended up adopting.

      A few years ago, a severely traumatized girl was placed in her care.

      She was told the young girl had been sexually abused twice and had seen her biological father be violent toward her biological mother multiple times.

        The young girl showed extreme anxiety and obsessive behaviours while in Pam's home. Pam says shortly after the girl arrived, she made it her mission to get her counselling. She says she could never have imagined how hard she would have to fight.

        I taped one of her nightmares and I showed it to a counsellor.- Pam, Yellowknife foster parent

        After three years of getting nowhere with calls and emails to Social Services, Pam took a different approach.

        "I taped one of her nightmares and I showed it to a counsellor. The next thing you know, I got her in for counselling."

        But the high demand for counselling in the territory means the girl's appointments aren't consistent. She is supposed to see a counsellor once a week. Pam says the girl has only had one session since June.

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        "I feel that If you've been pulled into care, you should see a counsellor. This is a kid who has high anxiety and high needs. These kids live horrific lives and they've seen horrible things."

        Pam says it's not just access to counselling that isn't consistent.

        "The social workers change so often that it's really hard to keep them up on the page, on what's what."

        Since September, her foster daughter has had three different social workers. 

        "I haven't even met the new one and she's been her social worker since December," she says.


        Hilary Bird


        Hilary Bird is a reporter with CBC North in Yellowknife. She has been reporting on Indigenous issues and politics for almost a decade and has won several national and international awards for her work. Hilary can be reached at