GN ‘struggling to put out a fire’ when it comes to child protection: MLA
Family Services announces ongoing work to improve foster system while coming up with long-term strategic plan
Nunavut’s Department of Family Services announced Wednesday its third attempt at better protecting youth in the department’s care — a strategic plan.
The update comes four months after a withering report from Canada’s auditor general regarding child and family services in Nunavut — the third such report since 2011 and 2014 — that concluded the Nunavut government is failing to protect vulnerable children.
MLAs had the chance on Tuesday and Wednesday to ask questions and get an update on what the department has done to address the report’s findings, during a hearing of the Standing Committee on Oversight of Government Operations and Public Accounts at the legislative assembly.
The Department of Family Services is accepting the auditor general’s advice to take a “whole of government” approach to making changes by developing the strategic plan with input from the Departments of Health, Human Resources, and the office of Canada’s auditor general.
Also in attendance at the hearing were Megan Hunt, deputy minister for health; Jimi Onalik, deputy minister for intergovernmental affairs; Kristie Cronin, deputy minister for human resources; and Andrew Hayes, the assistant deputy auditor general.
“This strategic plan must be built by members of the community, it must be owned by all of us,” said Jonathan Ellsworth, the deputy minister of family services, at the hearing.
Ellsworth did not offer a specific timeline for when the plan would be completed.
The department is also working to address staffing vacancies, inadequate training, improper procedures and staff safety as it develops the plan, as well as introducing new software to improve record-keeping and accountability.
“The Government of Nunavut is struggling to put out a fire, when it should focus on sparks before it becomes a flame,” said Iqaluit-Manirajak MLA Adam Arreak Lightstone during the hearing.
Ellsworth blamed the situation on a lack of meaningful government response to the previous auditor general reports.
The Department of Family Services created an action plan response to the second report. It aimed to increase staff retention, improve training for front-line workers and improve case management and data collection.
Yet the most recent auditor general’s report indicates that action plan was not effective. It noted the department was not able to provide an accurate count for the number of children and youth in its care.
The auditor general’s office also asked the Department of Family Services in December 2022 to follow up on a number of cases immediately, citing health and safety concerns for the youths involved.
As of the report’s release in May, the department had not followed up on 52 per cent of those cases. The government told the auditor general’s office it had taken care of the other 48 per cent of the highlighted cases, but did not provide evidence to support that assertion.
“Where are those children? These are real children, real families. Are these cases still out there in the netherworld? Where are these children who potentially are in danger?” asked Janet Pitsiulaaq Brewster, MLA for Iqaluit-Sinna, during the hearing.
Ellsworth confirmed that all of the cases have been followed up on since the report’s release.
“And I have received evidence to support that conclusion,” he said.
Since the report’s release, the auditor general’s office has kept in touch with GN departments, in particular the Department of Family Services, according to assistant deputy auditor general Hayes.
The auditor general’s office continues to monitor the situation and will make recommendations as work progresses.
“Ultimately, we are not the authority on resolving the issues that we find in our audit but we want to be a partner in terms of achieving positive outcomes,” Hayes said during the hearing.