North

'Unusable' N.W.T. child and family services audits included recommendations to the minister

An audit performed following a scathing auditor general's report produced valuable information, CBC has learned, despite claims from the department's leadership that the reports were unusable.

Audits done following a scathing auditor general's report were in fact complete, records show

Child and family services advisor Andy Langford, Health Minister Glen Abernethy and deputy minister Debbie DeLancey at a January presentation to the legislative committee on social development. (Hilary Bird/CBC)

The Northwest Territories government is refusing to release the results of an audit into how child and family services are being run in the territory, even after the minister of health acknowledged that audits he characterized as unusable in fact produced several recommendations for improvement.

Conducting the audit was a key recommendation by the federal auditor general in his scathing 2014 report, which found child and family services workers in the territory were not following key procedures to keep children safe, such as properly screening foster parents and following up on reports of children at risk.

Officials say the 2015 and 2016 audits were a way to ensure departmental staff were following those essential procedures.

But the audits have never been released to the public.

A software malfunction

On Jan. 19, Health Minister Glen Abernethy, child and family services advisor Andy Langford and deputy minister Debbie DeLancey made a presentation to the legislative committee on social development about the audit.

During the presentation, Abernethy refused multiple demands by MLAs to release the results.

"As you know from when you were a regular MLA our job is to provide oversight," MLA Julie Green said during the meeting. "I can't say that I'm totally comfortable that we can't even look at the 2015/2016 audit results."

Abernethy explained that the majority of the results were unusable because of a software malfunction with the auditing tool.

"I know the member is not going to be pleased with my response. It would actually require us to go back and do a significant amount of work to reestablish and recreate what was there," Abernethy said.

"I'm not prepared to have staff go back and do this work."  

'My conclusions are not good'

However, documents and internal emails obtained by the CBC show the 2015 audits had been completed several months prior to the presentation.

Department staff had even compiled the results and created a final report that included a number of recommendations on how child and family services in the territory could be improved.

CBC has obtained copies of those audit results through an access to information request. However, the territorial government redacted almost all of the information in the reports.

CBC obtained the audits following an access to information request. However, the documents provided were heavily redacted. (CBC)

While it's unclear what those recommendations were, internal emails from Langford suggest the audit results were concerning.

"I have been mulling over the results of the annual audit … and my conclusions are not good," Langford wrote in an email to other top health officials on August 16, 2016.

"Taken at face value, our measures of compliance are arguably worse than they were three years ago when the [auditor general] completed his audit. This is not a comforting result."

According to Langford, it's unclear whether the results reflect work not done, or work not recorded for the purpose of the audits. Internal emails suggest that's one of the problems with the audits overall.

'Areas… in need of improvement'

Abernethy himself acknowledged weaknesses with his January presentation in a letter to MLAs sent a week and a half later to "clarify any potential misunderstandings."

That letter was not released to the public or the media.

"It is unfortunate that much of our discussion, and the ensuing press coverage, focused on the shortcomings of the audit process," Abernethy wrote.

"What we did not discuss last week is the qualitative information also collected in the audits … This qualitative information confirmed what the quantitative data hinted at: there are areas of current practice that are in need of improvement."

Abernethy also sent MLAs a copy of that final report, which included recommendations. That report has never been released to the public and, when it was obtained by CBC through an access to information request, was almost completely redacted.

The CBC has asked the territory's Information and Privacy Commissioner, Elaine Keenan-Bengts, to review the territorial government's censorship of the audits and final report.

That review is expected to be completed by January.

Minister Glen Abernethy's office declined a request for an interview, referring CBC to the Department of Health and Social Services for comment. A department spokesperson offered to comment on Thursday or Friday.

Got a news tip? Reach northinvestigates@cbc.ca.

About the Author

Hilary Bird

Reporter

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 hilary.bird@cbc.ca

Comments

To encourage thoughtful and respectful conversations, first and last names will appear with each submission to CBC/Radio-Canada's online communities (except in children and youth-oriented communities). Pseudonyms will no longer be permitted.

By submitting a comment, you accept that CBC has the right to reproduce and publish that comment in whole or in part, in any manner CBC chooses. Please note that CBC does not endorse the opinions expressed in comments. Comments on this story are moderated according to our Submission Guidelines. Comments are welcome while open. We reserve the right to close comments at any time.

now