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Glen Abernethy – Report of the Auditor General on Child and Family Services

Mr. Speaker, yesterday the Auditor General of Canada’s report on Child and Family Services was tabled in this House.  The Auditor General’s findings indicate that the health and social services system is not adequately meeting its key responsibilities for the protection and well-being of children, youth and families.  This is a serious concern for all of us.

The conclusions in the report confirm the findings of the 16th Legislative Assembly’s Standing Committee on Social Programs’ review of the Child and Family Services Act.  As a participant in that review, I care deeply about ensuring that we take aggressive action to improve our supports to children and families.  The Department has accepted all of the Auditor General’s recommendations, and in many cases work has already begun.  Although the Auditor General’s findings tell us that we have not made enough progress, nor moved fast enough, there has in fact been substantial foundational work already done to respond to the 16th Assembly’s report. 

Mr. Speaker, that report recognized that most cases of child protection do not involve abuse, but involve neglect of children due to factors such as addictions and poverty.  It emphasized the need to build stronger supports for communities and families, and in this spirit, provided eight essential recommendations that were seen as foundational for improving the system.  We have made significant progress on some of these:

  • We have completed an updated Early Childhood Development Framework and Action Plan that emphasizes support to families.  The Healthy Family Program has been expanded to every region of the territory, and work is underway to adapt it for smaller communities. We are funding early childhood programs at transitional housing in Yellowknife to support the most vulnerable families from across the territory.  We will establish an early intervention service to provide direct support to families.
  • We have made significant new investments to address addictions by expanding the options available to our residents.  We have listened to the communities and are putting in place on-the-land healing options.  We have put in place a system to fast-track referrals to addictions treatment.
  • Based on recommendations of both the 16th and 17th Legislative Assemblies, we have developed an Anti-Poverty Strategy, and completed an action plan that includes supports for child and youth resiliency, and programs to provide nutritious food.

Recognizing that 90% of children in care are Aboriginal, our new Aboriginal Health and Community Wellness division is focusing their efforts on working with communities to support inter-agency committees and develop community-based solutions for supporting families.

Mr. Speaker, taken together, all these initiatives will help us to reach our ultimate goal of ensuring that no child needs to take advantage of child protection services.

But we know that day is a long way off, and the Department has also worked hard to respond to many of the recommendations from the 16th Assembly that speak directly to improving our child protection programs.

Tremendous effort has been put into working with communities to try to establish Child and Family Service Committees over the past three years.  Staff were dedicated to this project, and explicit direction was given to health and social services authorities to make this a priority.  Mr. Speaker, I am sorry to report that despite years of effort, there are no Child and Family Services committees currently operational.  What we heard from communities is that the model proposed in our current legislation simply will not work.  Communities are concerned about financial and legal requirements, about capacity, and about the difficult task of engaging in making tough decisions about the lives of friends and family.  We need to find a better way to achieve the goal of giving communities a role in supporting families in need.

But many other recommendations of the report have been addressed:

  • Plain language materials have been developed and are available in Aboriginal languages to explain to families what services are available and how they can access them.
  • Statutory training programs for child protection workers have been updated to reflect best practices, and a new training program has been developed to target senior managers in health and services authorities, including Chief Executive Officers.  
  • A business case was completed for a new Child and Family Information system, and funding is included in the 2014-2015 Capital estimates.  This project, estimated to be complete within three years, will greatly improve the Authorities’ and Department’s ability to monitor compliance with policy and regulation, and ensure appropriate follow-up on individual cases.
  • The report included recommendations for numerous amendments to the Child and Family Services Act.  A legislative proposal has been completed, drafting is under way and we intend to bring forward this legislation in February of 2015.
  • Revisions to the Child and Family Services Standards and Procedures manual, which provides guidance to child protection workers across all regions, are nearly complete and will be distributed this summer.  These amendments will include a new approach to Child and Family Services Committees, and potentially an expanded role for committees.

Mr. Speaker, the Auditor General’s report speaks to the lack of accountability within the health and social services system.  This is a bigger issue and affects our ability to guarantee consistent and effective program delivery in all our mandate areas.  As I have informed this House, I intend to bring forward legislation to improve and enhance accountability.

Mr. Speaker, there has been progress, but I acknowledge that it is not enough.  Since becoming Minister four months ago, I have directed the Department to take immediate action to designate Chief Executive Officers of Authorities as Assistant Directors of Child and Family Services under the Act.  This appointment will make them directly responsible for ensuring that our system does not drop the ball on any child welfare case.  I will be directing the Chairs and Public Administrators  of Authorities to ensure that this is included in the CEOs’ performance objectives and that improvements are monitored.

I have directed the Department to fill the gap with respect to annual reports, which as the Auditor General noted have not been provided to the Minister for over a decade.  Beginning this year, I have directed that I receive a report by October of each year, which can be tabled in this Assembly.

Mr. Speaker, the Auditor General’s website tells us that the purpose of their reports is to achieve positive change.  I intend to use this report and recommendations to do just that.  I intend to work with the Standing Committee on Social Programs not only to build on the recommendations in the Auditor General’s report, but to build a system of supports for children and families that ensures every child in the Northwest Territories is safe, and that their families are supported.

Thank you, Mr. Speaker.