Commissioner rules N.W.T. gov't wrong to withhold results of family and social services audits

Information and Privacy Commissioner Elaine Keenan Bengts has ruled that the territorial government should have released results of child and family services audits requested by the CBC in 2017. The documents provided to CBC were widely redacted.

Keeping results in the dark fails purpose of doing audits in the first place, says privacy commissioner

The N.W.T. Information and Privacy Commissioner has ruled that the territorial government should publicly release results of audits into how child and family services are run in the territory. CBC obtained the audits following an access to information request. However, the documents provided were heavily redacted. (CBC)

The Government of the Northwest Territories was wrong to withhold the results of an audit into how child and family services are being run in the territory, according to the territory's information and privacy commissioner.

Elaine Keenan Bengts released her findings in a written report, released Thursday.

Annual audits were a key recommendation made by the federal auditor general in a 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.

The yearly audits are a way to ensure departmental staff are following those essential procedures.

In January 2017, CBC requested a copy of the 2015 and 2016 audit results through Access to Information Act legislation.

When CBC received the documents in August 2017, the results of the audits were redacted — or blacked out.

CBC then appealed those redactions to the N.W.T.'s Information and Privacy Commissioner. Her report is the result of that appeal.

Audits can't approve accountability if not released, says commissioner

N.W.T. Information and Privacy Commissioner, Elaine Keenan Bengts, says the territory was wrong to redact the results of the audits so widely. (Jane Sponagle/CBC)

In her report, Keenan Bengts said the territorial government was wrong to redact information so widely. She recommended the government disclose the majority of the audit results to the CBC.

"One of the goals of creating this audit program was to improve accountability," states Keenan Bengts in her report. "This cannot be accomplished by refusing to disclose the results."

The territorial government had argued it redacted the information in the reports because it didn't want to "prejudice the results of future audits."

But Keenan Bengts disagreed with that reasoning.

"It is difficult to conceive of a situation in which the disclosure of the audit results could reasonably be expected to prejudice the results of future audits," she wrote.

"It is a compliance audit, which means that it is intended to measure the degree to which employees working [in] child and family services are meeting their legislated responsibilities. Either the legislative mandate has been met … or it has not been."

Gov't has until July 5 to respond

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)

Keenan Bengts, however, did agree with the territorial government's decision to redact the recommendations that came out of the audits.  

While the audits themselves were fully redacted, the CBC received a number of email correspondences between Health and Social Services staff.

In an internal email to top health officials on Aug. 16, 2016, child and family services adviser Andy Langford suggested the audit results were concerning.

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

Even though the Office of the Information and Privacy Commissioner of the N.W.T. is a territorial body and reports to the N.W.T. Legislative Assembly, the commissioner's recommendations are not binding.

The territorial government can decide whether or not to follow those recommendations. If the government refuses to follow through with the commissioner's recommendations, the CBC can appeal that decision at the Supreme Court of the N.W.T.

The territorial government has until July 5 to submit its response to the commissioner's findings.

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