04/30/2014 01:22 EDT | Updated 06/30/2014 05:59 EDT

Governments scramble to fix northern child welfare after damning audits

Northern governments are scrambling to fix child welfare systems that their own politicians describe as broken after searing assessments from the federal auditor general.

"It's clear that our processes weren't being followed, which puts children at risk," admitted Glen Abernethy, minister of health and social services for the Northwest Territories, which held special hearings last week.

Nunavut, which has 369 children in care, is readying its own public hearings on the issue after an audit which found deep-seated problems with how the territory protects children in trouble.

"Serious gaps remain in compliance with key child protection standards," concluded auditor general Michael Ferguson.

Ferguson found many of the same problems in both territories, most revolving around screening, supervision and record-keeping.

Two-thirds of foster homes in the N.W.T. didn't receive complete screenings for such things as criminal records. In Nunavut, only 40 per cent of extended family homes and 60 per cent of non-family homes were checked.

Fewer than a third of children in Nunavut foster homes were visited by social workers to check on their care as often as required. In the N.W.T., 28 per cent of reported child protection concerns simply weren't investigated, and in 13 per cent of the cases, even immediate safety factors weren't considered.

No long-term risk assessments for children were conducted in N.W.T. at all, leading to children being repeatedly taken into care.

"In one case we reviewed, there were ultimately over 40 reported child protection concerns, resulting in the child being apprehended nine times," Ferguson wrote.

Both territories failed to track clients, homes or facilities.

Nunavut "could not confirm the accuracy of even the most basic information on children and youth in protective care," the audit says.

In the N.W.T., nearly one-third of children's files were wrong. The department couldn't produce reliable information on home approvals or how long homes had been open.

And none of the territory's eight regional child services authorities has clear lines of accountability back to the department.

Ferguson made many of the same criticisms of Nunavut in a 2011 audit. His comments on the N.W.T. were anticipated in 2010 by a legislature committee, of which Abernethy was a member.

Cindy Blackstock, a University of Alberta professor and director of the First Nations Child and Family Caring Society, said turnover of child welfare staff and the remoteness of many northern communities make care difficult. But those factors don't excuse inaction, she said.

"The only time I hear about remoteness as being an issue for governments is when we're talking about people. If you were sitting on top of a diamond mine way up in the middle of the Arctic, you'll have politicians eating seal meat within a matter of minutes."

She said the North does have special circumstances that make child services more complex, such as the high percentage of residential school survivors and the lingering social impacts of other government interventions in Inuit and Dene lives.

"We can see there's a direct line to residential schools," she said.

Jean Lafrance, a University of Calgary professor of social work with long experience in northern communities, agreed. But he warned that outside observers should cut child care workers in tiny northern communities some slack.

"People are known," he said. "The paperwork that's required on the part of the workers sometimes isn't all that relevant to actually knowing the situation they're putting children in.

"If auditors are looking at the reports and they're finding information missing, I suspect there're probably a lot of information that (workers) have that they just don't bother to put into the file because it's kind of common knowledge."

Still, Abernethy said the N.W.T. has to do better. Recommendations from that 2010 committee are now entering social work practice — training to ensure consistent records, standardized procedures across different communities and clear lines of authority.

"A lot of work had been done," Abernethy said. "Which is, I guess, all right — but it doesn't show a lot of action from the public's point of view. It doesn't take a rocket scientist to know that things still need to be done.

"According to the auditor general, our administration of the Child and Family Services Act did place children at risk."