'It can be frustrating': Problems linger at N.W.T. public guardian's office

Yellowknife MLA Julie Green says the N.W.T. Office of the Public Guardian has a caseload double the size it should be.

Concerns raised 18 months ago; office still working with inadequate resources, according to MLA

Julie Green, MLA for Yellowknife Centre, has concerns about the amount of work the N.W.T. Office of the Public Guardian is expected to take on. (Mitchel Wiles/CBC)

The N.W.T. Office of the Public Guardian is over budget, using an outdated operations manual and doesn't have the resources required to run efficiently, according to a May 2017 external review of the office. And not much has changed since.

In June 2016, Health and Social Services Minister Glen Abernethy ordered an external review of the public guardian's office after "concerns had been identified that the public guardian's caseload had been increasing steadily over the past five years" without budget increases, according to the executive summary of the review.

The public guardian's office provides guardianship for people who cannot take care of themselves because of circumstances such as dementia or severe mental illness. It facilitates guardianship orders between private citizens and provides public guardianship for people who don't have anybody to take care of them.

Manual not consulted, no audits, no regional reps

The review was undertaken between July and November 2016. At the time, the public guardian was responsible for 69 people and was supporting 77 private guardianship orders with a budget of $285,000 per year. 

Other key findings include:

  • The office's operations manual was published prior to 1999 — and did not appear to be used in daily operations.
  • The manual stipulates there should be representatives posted in each region of the territory, and none had been posted since at least 2006.
  • The manual references regional audits semi-annually and annual central audits. The review found no audits were taking place.

Today, the public guardian is responsible for 76 individuals, according to Yellowknife Centre MLA Julie Green, and there is no word on whether the office's budget will be increased until the 2018-19 territorial budget is released next month. In 2017/18 the office's budget was increased from $285,000 to $289,000.

"I think that we are asking one person to run this office, take the applications, shepherd them through the court process and manage the relationships with the existing client load and frankly, it's not a realistic expectation," she said.

Green estimates the public guardian's caseload is double what it should be, using acceptable social worker caseloads as a benchmark.

She did say she believes the Department of Health and Social Services has contracted more psychologists to help with the assessment process.

Frustrated families

Lynn Elkin, executive director of the Yellowknife Association for Community Living, said it's hard to tell whether the office has improved services since the external review — she's seen wait times vary wildly.

She helps families through the application process, but stressed she doesn't see the applications themselves, so she doesn't know what could be causing issues for some families.

An application processed quickly makes it through in about six months, but some families are still waiting more than a year.

"It can be frustrating," explained Elkin.

"Most of the Yellowknife and territorial health-care and other providers are really wonderful about acknowledging when there's really a need for supported decision making. But every once in awhile you'll run into somebody who says, 'I can't talk to you because you're not the guardian and I'm dealing with an adult' and sometimes that adult is not capable in that moment of making these kinds of decisions."

What's changed since May 2017?

According to Health and Social Services spokesperson Damien Healy, the department has accepted the review's recommendations and is modernizing its manual. The department is hoping to have a new manual ready by 2019.

Healy stated the office will not be audited until the manual is updated and "the department is currently reviewing the delivery model of the Office of the Public Guardian with the potential inclusion of public guardian representatives in the regions."

The department has implemented an electronic tracking and processing system to help track and manage applications.

Health Minister Glen Abernethy declined an interview request but stated "The information provided by [Healy] accurately describes the steps being taken to make sure that these changes are sustainable and implementable long-term."