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Nunavik’s youth protection crisis deepens

Quebec cabinet ministers plan emergency visit to Kuujjuaq and Puvirnituq

By JANE GEORGE

The Quebec provincial cabinet ministers responsible for social services and native affairs will visit Nunavik by mid-July to deal personally with the region’s worsening youth protection crisis.

Pierre Corbeil, the provincial native affairs minister, told the Nunatsiaq News that he and social services minister Lise Thériault plan to meet with health and social services staff and visit facilities in Kuujjuaq and Puvirnituq.

The visit follows growing pressure from among southern officials and media to help overworked youth protection workers in the Ungava Bay region, who say they’re at the end of their rope.

Ten workers recently outlined their frustrations to their director of youth protection in a letter obtained by the Nunatsiaq News.

“This situation which we live daily exposes us to ethical compromises, not to mention the risks to our mental and physical health. The heavy work load has become the common denominator that we all share at this moment,” they wrote in their June 11 letter to Daniel Michaud.

Corbeil promised action on at least some of their concerns, saying he would also look into the market for drugs and alcohol in Nunavik, which many say increases social problems in the communities and raises stress for youth workers.

Quebec’s decision to send two top ministers to Nunavik also comes less than two weeks after the vice-president of Quebec’s human rights commission called for immediate action to deal with Nunavik’s continuing crisis in youth protection services.

Sylvie Godin of the Commission des droits de la personne et des droits de la jeunesse said the youth protection law is no longer respected in Nunavik and that the rights of children are being compromised.

In April 2007, investigators from Quebec’s human rights commission came out with a report that slammed youth protection, social services and youth justice in Nunavik.

(Download the report here.)

Investigators found that in Nunavik “a large number of children are physically, psychologically and sexually mistreated. Some children, despite their young age, are addicted to alcohol, drugs or other substances that cause serious physical or mental disorders.”

They found the region’s social network failed to give children and youth the protection to which they are legally entitled.

They produced 21 recommendations on how Nunavik, working with the provincial government, should act to correct the situation within a year, with Quebec premier Jean Charest taking the lead to make sure change happens.

Now it’s two years later, many of the problems remain, and Quebec Premier Jean Charest and his cabinet must do something, the Parti Québécois also said last week.

“Ever since the urgent alarm was raised by the commission in its 2007 report, the condition of vulnerable Inuit children has continued to deteriorate. We could say the same thing for social workers who are supposed to protect them. The time has come for action: we need to see results now,” said Camil Bouchard, the PQ’s native affairs critic, in a PQ news release.

Bouchard also called on the federal government to help build more housing in Nunavik.

A call for more housing construction was also among the recommendations attached to the commission report, which said Nunavik’s social housing shortage compounds social problems.

“It’s time for the Charest government to pull up its pants and get the necessary money from Ottawa to build the housing these people need. For hundreds of parents and children, it’s an urgent matter, ” Bouchard said.

A Nunavik housing forum, where the region expected to receive commitments for hundreds of new social housing units, scheduled for June 25, was recently postponed again to August or September.

But building more and better housing is just part of the solution, say youth protection workers.

Youth protection workers say their job is hard to do properly because there are too few workers, limited resources and too many children who need help.

“We believe it’s no longer healthy for our mental and physical health to work under these circumstances,” the workers said.

Among other things, they attribute their heavy caseload to long-standing problems among some families, which include alcoholism, drug abuse, family and spousal violence, incest, sexual abuse, neglect, mental illness and fetal alcohol syndrome.

By law, youth protection workers are obliged to make sure that any situation, such as abuse, neglect, abandonment, which puts a child’s security or development in danger, is brought to an end.

But helping children in these situations requires long hours, dedication and a thick skin — particularly when it involves removing children from their homes.

Sometimes workers must remove a child although they aren’t sure exactly where the child will go.

That’s because there are still not enough local families with the space at home to take in young foster children and no group home at all for children six to 12.

This lack of resources is compounded by a shortage of staff to evaluate and follow-up on cases, they say.

For example, there are more than 80 case evaluations that need to be done on the Ungava Bay coast, but soon there won’t be a single case worker remaining to do this job.

The result? Many cases go into the already-busy court system and overwhelmed workers decide to quit their jobs, they say.

Children suffer also from the staff shortage and turnovers, the resulting delays and chronic lack of resources.

Youth protection workers working in the Hudson Bay communities are also in trouble.

“The workers here are working incredible hours,” said Marianne Martin, director of youth protection for the Hudson Bay coast, who logged 97 hours of overtime during the last two-week work period. “The Inuit staff are incredible. It’s not like in the South where you can intervene and go home for supper.”

Martin told the Nunatsiaq News that the 35 youth protection workers in the seven Hudson Bay communities bear an even a heavier load than those along Ungava Bay.

An “astounding” number of reports requiring intervention are received every year, she said.

The number of these reports has risen from 306 in 2003-4 to 643 last year. Caseworkers who should have about 20 files to look after now have 35.

About half of the calls to youth protection come in after 5 p.m. Alcohol and violence are usually involved, and about half of the interventions affect a child under five, Martin said.

“When you’re talking about younger children being involved, you’re talking about very difficult family problems,” Martin said.
Quebec boosted the number of positions for Hudson Bay’s youth protection services by eight following the 2007 commission report. But these are difficult to fill, particularly with experienced workers, she said.

And it’s difficult to keep workers, even more so when they come from Nunavik.

Sometimes they’re harassed when they’re out in the community, picking up mail in the post office or food-shopping at the co-op.
Sometimes angry family members threaten the workers’ families, physically assault them or publicly condemn them on local community radio stations.

As for solutions, more experienced staff, access to more social housing and more childcare spaces would help ease the crisis.

But the communities also need to get on board “because a social worker will never be able to replace a parent,” Martin said.

“We can keep putting band aids on, but it’s always [from the top] down. For change to happen, for children to be kept safe, it has to be from the ground up. The people have to decide ‘that’s what I want for my child,’” she said.

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