N.W.T. family services act changes proposed

Changes to the N.W.T.'s Child and Family Services Act should ensure more families stay together, according to a committee of MLAs that has reviewed the legislation.

Changes to the Northwest Territories' Child and Family Services Act should ensure more families stay together, according to a committee of MLAs that has reviewed the legislation.

The standing committee on social programs has recommended more than 70 changes to the act, many of which focus on trying to keep children in their homes as opposed to being placed in foster care. The recommendations were tabled in the N.W.T. legislative assembly on Thursday.

"There's more children in care in Canada right now in foster care than there [were] in the era of residential schools, but we're having the same results," said Mackenzie Delta MLA David Krutko, one of the committee's members.

"You're taking children out of their communities, you're taking them away from their homes, taking them away from their families. That is the cost of what we're looking at here."

Krutko said neglect, poverty and addictions are often factors that lead to northern families being split up, so he and other committee members want to see counselling and addictions treatment programs made available to parents.

Support for relatives

As well, the committee recommends that if a child must be taken out of his or her home, that the child be placed first with extended family members.

Those relatives should receive government support to care for those children, said Tu Nedhe MLA Tom Beaulieu, who chairs the standing committee.

"What we're trying to do is put the puzzles in place in order to allow for grandparents to protect their grandchildren, and at the same time not be burdened with the cost," Beaulieu said.

The committee is calling for child and family service committees to be established in every community, as well as more aboriginal social workers and aboriginal foster parents.

Beaulieu and other members also want foster care services to cover youth until they are at least 19 years old, as opposed to the current maximum age of 16.

Long-term investments

"There's not an opportunity for these foster kids to complete their education — college, university, or anything at that level," Beaulieu said.

He added that social services officials should stay involved with foster youth "to try to give them a better chance of a better education so they become more self-sufficient."

The standing committee on social programs did not put a price tag on their recommended changes, but Yellowknife Frame Lake MLA Wendy Bisaro said the long-term investments will help children and youth from falling through the cracks.

"My belief is that we will put money out up front, and we will recoup that money in not putting children into foster care, in not sending children south," Bisaro said.

"There's any number of different ways where we're not going to be spending money that we're spending now."

The N.W.T. Health and Social Services Department has four months to respond to the standing committee's recommendations.