N.W.T. child services to work to support families

N.W.T. Director of Child and Family Services says department is making changes to ensure social workers try to support families when kids are being neglected.

Social Services Department to focus more on fixing families than putting children in foster care

NWT changes to child services

8 years ago
Duration 2:35
NWT changes to child services

The N.W.T. Departments of Health and Social Services says it's shifting its focus more to working with birth parents and less on putting children into foster care.

Minister Glen Abernethy introduced the "Action Plan to Transform Child and Family Services" in the legislative assembly Thursday afternoon. It follows more than 100 recommendations made in recent reports and audits that found the child protection system is failing children and families. 

"We have to do things differently," said Andy Langford, director of N.W.T. Child and Family Services and defacto guardian of the approximately 150 children now in permanent care. 

"The preference is always to have a permanent placement with your birth parents. The only way we're going to be able to accomplish that is transforming how we do child protection services and making sure we give birth parents the supports and assistance they need in order to keep their children safe."​

Among the changes, social workers won't automatically investigate parents. First, child protection workers will assess a child's safety and determine if they're being abused or neglected. If the child isn't in immediate danger, the case workers are now tasked with working with families to ensure they have the support they need to care for a child. 

Andy Langford, director of Child and Family Services in the Northwest Territories, says the majority of kids who come in contact with child protection are being neglected and social workers are changing their approach when there are complaints. (Elizabeth McMillan/CBC)
"An investigation sets a tone to the relationship between child protection worker and the parents and too often the investigative techniques are intrusive and they lead to an adversarial relationship developing early on," said Langford

Langford says the majority of kids who come in contact with child protection are being neglected, and that happens at a higher rate in the territory than in other jurisdictions, partly because of so many parents struggling with addictions. He says part of the change in focus is helping parents deal with those issues. 

"The child protection worker approaches the issue from the perspective of doing an assessment of family strengths and family needs rather than doing an investigation of parental behaviour. That sets a different tone. It facilitates a collaborative approach rather than an adversarial relationship between parent and social worker. That I think is the most significant change." 

Langford says that approach will allow social workers to continually re-assess plans of care, as opposed to ending up in court with parents. 

The report tabled outlines what changes to Child and Family Services are in progress and what are planned in the coming months.

There are new timelines for how long children can spend in temporary care. Children five and under may only spend 12 months, compared to the current limit of 24 months. Children ages five to 11 may spend only 18 months in temporary care; for children older than 11, the limit is two years. 

"It's intended to speed the process up of making a permanency decision," said Langford.

Langford says amendments to the Child and Family Services Act will be introduced next year. Among the proposed changes is more support for older children. Teenagers 16 to 19 will be able to enter foster case. At the moment, if children aren't already in foster care by 16, they're not eligible. 

Youth will also be able to receive services such as counselling, financial help and assistance with housing until age 23. That assistance now ends at 18.

Other changes: 

  • the Child Welfare League of Canada has been contracted to analyze social workers' workloads. Their report should be done by the end of March.
  • a revised training manual for child protection workers will be finished by the end of the year and continually updated from now on. 
  • anyone supervising child protection workers are required to get specialized training, including the CEOs of health authorities 
  • aboriginal organizations must be notified of children's apprehension hearings 
  • a new filing system that should make it easier for social workers to keep electronic records. The current system hasn't been replaced in 15 years. 

Langford had retired from the public service and was asked to assume the hard-to-fill position as director two years ago. He'd previously been superintendent of child welfare in the territory 20 years ago.

"When I came back two years ago I was struck by the fact that some of the fundamental issues had not changed. We were continuing to take children into care far more often than we probably should be and the over representation of aboriginal children in particular remained pretty much what it had been 20 years ago."