Dehcho grand chief pens letter about 'deplorable situation' in N.W.T. child and family services

Gladys Norwegian, Dehcho First Nations grand chief in the N.W.T., penned the letter to the premier and the minister of Health and Social Services.

'This deplorable situation needs to be immediately rectified,' writes the grand chief in a letter dated Nov. 8

Gladys Norwegian, the grand chief for Dehcho First Nations, says the Department of Health and Social Services needs to work more with Indigenous leaders to come up with better programming to improve care for children in the foster care system. (Kate Kyle/CBC)

Dehcho Grand Chief Gladys Norwegian says the "deplorable situation" within the N.W.T.'s child and family services division needs to be remedied, calling the minister and his staff into action in a recent letter to the premier and the health minister.

"I'm writing to express my disappointment and deep concern regarding the [report]," writes Norwegian in a letter dated Nov. 8, also sent to other chiefs across the territory.

"This deplorable situation needs to be immediately rectified."

Canada's Office of the Auditor General gave a scathing review of the territory's health department in 2014 for failing to address ongoing issues, risking the well-being of children in its care. Its recent followup report found administrative changes designed to fix those issues overwhelmed staff and in some areas, made things worse for children in care.

The main issue is the lack of child and family services. I think it was too much emphasis on having the minister step down.- Gladys Norwegian, Dehcho First Nations grand chief

About 1,000 children per year receive protection or preventive services from the territory, an average that's remained steady over the past decade. The majority are Indigenous.

Norwegian said she wrote the letter because she didn't want the government to forget what's important — improving  conditions for children in care, most of which are Indigenous.

Norwegian said the recent non-confidence vote for Health Minister Glen Abernethy, who was facing criticism after the auditor general's recent report, was a major reason she wrote the letter — she felt the issue was becoming too political, rather than focusing on finding solutions.

N.W.T. Health Minister Glen Abernethy said more social workers will be hired as a response to the recent auditor general's report. (Alex Brockman/CBC)

"The main issue is the lack of child and family services. I think it was too much emphasis on having the minister step down," Norwegian told CBC.

"I just want to keep it in the forefront," she added. "I don't want people to forget about it — that there is a huge issue in this department."

Suggests partnership with the Dehcho First Nations

The health minister had said the department will improve the situation by hiring more social workers, and developing policies and standards that can survive ongoing staff turnover.

Meanwhile, Norwegian said more needs to be done to include Indigenous voices.

"We trust the [N.W.T. government] is open to partnerships and input from the very people it serves," wrote Norwegian in the letter.

She specifically calls for a partnership between the government and her office to "rebuild" a family support program that includes Indigenous values. She wants the program to be more about prevention and not intervention.

"It's not just on the social workers. I think we have to think outside the box and possibly work with the families more so that their kids will not be taken away," said Norwegian.

A spokesperson at the premier's office told CBC it has received the letter and is working on a response to Norwegian.

Read Norwegian's full letter below. On mobile? Click here.