Nunavut children still suffer from botched communications, watchdog says

Outgoing representative for children and youth appears at legislative hearing

Sherry McNeil-Mulak, Nunavut’s outgoing Representative for Children and Youth, in an appearance before the legislative assembly’s standing committee on oversight of government operations and public accounts, where she answered questions about her annual reports from the past three years. Her five-year term expires this June. (Screen grab)

By Jim Bell

Nunavut children who need services still suffer from continuing weaknesses at the Department of Family Services and a serious lack of coordination among the Government of Nunavut departments responsible for providing those services, Nunavut’s child and youth rights watchdog told MLAs April 10.

Sherry McNeil-Mulak, Nunavut’s outgoing representative for children and youth, delivered that assessment to members of the legislative assembly’s standing committee on oversight of government operations and public accounts, where she appeared as a witness.

“We have grown extremely concerned about weaknesses in the current system,” she said in her opening remarks, referring to the Department of Family Services’ level of support for children and youth.

The legislative committee, on Wednesday, April 10, started two days of televised hearings.

Today, another officer of the legislative assembly, Elaine Keenan-Bengts, Nunavut’s information and privacy commissioner, will appear at the hearing.

Kids caught in bureaucratic snafus

The child and youth representative’s 2017-18 annual report says Family Services generated 72 per cent of the “individual advocacy” cases that her office worked on during that fiscal year.

“Individual advocacy” means work aimed at helping a child or youth get services from government workers, and is often done to sort out bureaucratic screw-ups that leave kids in the lurch.

Iqaluit-Manirajak MLA Adam Arreak Lightstone said he is surprised to see that sexual abuse isn’t mentioned much in the children and youth representative’s annual report. (Screen grab)

This kind of work represents a growing part of the youth representative office’s work.

“Since opening, our office has worked on 200 individual advocacy cases, and we are concerned that no tangible improvements have been made to address this major barrier,” McNeil-Mulak’s 2017-18 report said.

Another disturbing statistic is that 68 per cent of those Family Service matters involve youth protection.

The second biggest number of individual advocacy cases in 2017-18—31 per cent—involved the Department of Health. This includes problems gaining access to mental health and specialist services, oral health, and problems afflicting young people receiving out-of-territory care.

And 27 per cent of cases involved the Department of Education.

At the same time, many cases involve multiple departments.

Also, McNeil-Mulak told MLAs that many of these cases are brought to her office by frustrated GN workers who run into roadblocks when they try to help kids with problems.

“There is a lot of frustration felt by frontline service providers,” she said.

DEA decision breached child’s education rights

In one egregious case cited in the agency’s 2017-18 annual report, a troubled child lost more than two months of time at school because of multi-faceted communication screw-ups involving a district education authority, a school, a community social worker, and mental health workers.

The child, a ward of Family Services, “exhibited suicidal ideation” while on school property. (“Suicidal ideation” means suicidal thoughts.)

The child received a partial psychiatric assessment, but it wasn’t completed.

At the same time, the DEA said the child could not go back to school until that assessment was done.

That position by the DEA violated the child’s right to an education, the child and youth advocacy office found.

The child advocate corrected that by arranging for the school to give the child take-home learning materials, but the psychiatric assessment was delayed even longer by problems involving the community social worker and the social worker’s supervisor.

In the end, it took more than two months to get the mess sorted out.

“All involved service providers were encouraged to improve their communication in order to properly coordinate services,” the report said.

High staff turnover, staff shortages

Arviat North-Whale Cove MLA John Main, the chair of the committee, asked McNeil-Mulak near the end of the meeting, in relation to the communication problems that affect child youth services, to specify “who is not talking to whom.”

McNeil-Mulak replied by saying it occurs everywhere within the GN.

“The communication barriers exist throughout the entirety of government,” she said.

Yvonne Niego, the deputy minister of the Department of Family Services, said she’s trying to bring some stability to the department, which has seen multiple deputy ministers and multiple ministers after being hived off from the Department of Health in 2013. (Screen grab)

As for continuing weaknesses at the Department of Family Service, the department’s deputy minister, Yvonne Niego, said the department still suffers from high staff turnover and staff shortages.

The high turnover means that many employees haven’t learned about who they are allowed to talk to, who they can share information with, and who else provides services for children.

And McNeil-Mulak told MLAs it’s clear that Family Services staff, especially community social service workers, are overworked and overwhelmed.

“We see a tremendous burden place on the social services workforce,” she said.

Niego said Family Services experienced a lot of instability after it was hived off from the Department of Health in 2013 and set up as a standalone department.

That included a succession of multiple deputy ministers and multiple ministers.

“We’re trying to build stability into the department,” she said.

Sexual abuse a priority for Family Services

Another area that Niego, a former RCMP officer, considers a priority is the sexual abuse of children.

She made those remarks after Iqaluit-Manirajak MLA Adam Arreak Lightstone said he’s surprised that the sexual abuse of children didn’t get mentioned in McNeil-Mulak’s presentation.

Main also asked a similar question.

“This topic I would consider one of my specialty areas,” Niego replied.

Referring to a message that McNeil-Mulak repeated many times, Niego said that when dealing with sexual abuse service providers must listen to children.

“We totally agree on listening to the voice of youth. This is important,” Niego said.

And that’s because abused children are often not believed in their home communities.

“I do not have faith in our communities’ ability to hear children,” Niego said.

For that reason, and because many abused children do not know how to articulate what is happening to them, “everyone should be attuned to the signs and symptoms of sexual abuse,” Niego said.

McNeil-Mulak said her office is planning to submit a report, based on a systemic review of mental health issues, to the GN later this year. She said that report will contain 15 recommendations, and make references to sexual abuse.

Children’s rights alien to Inuit?

During the all-day session, some MLAs suggested the concept of promoting children’s rights, a message that McNeil-Mulak stressed throughout the day, is alien to Inuit.

“As an Inuk, it is something that is foreign to me,” Rankin Inlet North-Chesterfield Inlet MLA Cathy Towtongie said of the idea of children’s rights.

And referring to the four GN departments represented at the hearing—Family Services, Health, Education and Justice—Towtongie said they too represent alien systems.

“I don’t see any of these systems reflecting our ancient culture,” she said.

Aggu MLA Paul Quassa also expressed some discomfort with the idea of children’s rights.

“Children have to be treated like children… These days people are trying to counsel them like little adults,” Quassa said.

And Baker Lake MLA Simeon Mikkungwak asked a blunt question: “How does your office deal with spoiled brats?”

McNeil-Mulak responded by saying her office doesn’t get involved in private family matters.

After Mikkungwak clarified his question by saying he was thinking of children who bully other children, Niego said such behavior is likely a sign of other problems in the child’s life.

McNeil-Mulak, who was appointed to the position on June 2, 2014, will finish her five-year term in June of this year.

She told MLAs that the agency, which is an office the legislature, needs two more staff members: a person able to lead investigations of child deaths and serious injuries, and a person capable of leading “systemic advocacy” on child and youth rights issues.

The legislative assembly has already begun to advertise for another Nunavut children and youth representative, but they have yet to name McNeil-Mulak’s successor.

The office was created in 2014, after the legislative assembly had passed the Representative for Children and Youth Act in 2013.

That followed years of lobbying, starting in the early 2000s by the former Cambridge Bay mayor and MLA, Keith Peterson, and others.

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(19) Comments:

  1. Posted by wow on

    some of the comments from the current MLAs are outrageous! seriously?? in the year 2019 these are the comments coming from the leaders of Nunavut? i am speechless! no wonder Nunavut has problems

    • Posted by JE on

      I have to agree with this comment. After all we’ve heard about children and they have to heard. Why are the politicians so in denial about children speaking up for themselves. Only they [the children] know how they feel inside.

      • Posted by stunned on

        I agree too. Just shocking comments…..yikes.

    • Posted by Old Ways, New Days on

      It is important to recognize and document traditions and customs, and glean from them any knowledge which can better our world and our lives, HOWEVER, just because something has been done a certain way, even for time immemorial, does not automatically mean that it is the BEST way forward.

  2. Posted by “Has Been Hunter” on

    Let us push for the abolishment of social passing within the education system. Statistics show that Inuit are still very much absent from the workforce. In small communities, we live on welfare and adequately unable to provide for the young and our education system is set up so they fail after Grade 10 and just become welfare recipients. The only ones succeeding in Nunavut are transients who come up with Degrees and they have no ties with Nunavut and so economics don’t trickle down. There are more that should be done, but will only comment on education.

    • Posted by Helen Klengenberg on

      I have to disagree with your comment that “the only ones succeeding in Nunavut are transients” … there are many resident Inuit whom are succeeding in Nunavut, and many Inuit with degrees, diplomas, journey man certificates and much more. Further learning and education for residents of Nunavut is endless. Stay in School, Go back to School, Go to College or go onto University. No one is ever too old to go back to school.

      • Posted by Pa Hopkins on

        I agree with Helen’s comment, it is up to the individual or
        family to find their own destiny. Just have to do it !
        JOSEY WALES, The ways of our ancestors could be just as
        brutal, or wicked as anything happening today. I can go
        into a lot more detail if necessary.

  3. Posted by This is a FACT on

    The issues raised here are rampant throughout the entire public service. The GN is an inefficient behemoth marked by incompetence at nearly every level.

  4. Posted by AL on

    Brilliant questions from the MLAs. Not. One. Bit.

  5. Posted by josywales on

    Our Ancestors did not have Childrens’ Rights?
    What about never to hit a child, yelled at or generally abuse them. They were taught right from wrong at a very early stage. They were taught to hunt and look after their future Families at a very early age. If a boy became a man he could not marry a woman until they were able to demonstrate their ability to completely look after their Family until they deceased.
    There are other rights but cannot think more at at moment.

  6. Posted by Ridiculous on

    Please keep quoting the member from Rankin north/Chester.

    She says things like this all the time and no one holds he accountable. It’s very frustrating.

  7. Posted by Qavvigarjuk on

    There are plenty old Inuit stories and legends that talk/tell stories about not treating a child badly/ Illiarjuk otherwise something bad will happen to you if you don’t similar to karma; what goes around comes around.

  8. Posted by iRoll on

    “As an Inuk, [children’s rights] is something that is foreign to me”

    The reactionary Inuk has spoken. If it’s a ‘Southern’ concept (in this case it’s humanist, which Christians also treat as suspect, double whammy with this MLA), treat it with suspicion, at the very least, or contempt. Either is acceptable.

  9. Posted by parent on

    “everyone should be attuned to the signs and symptoms of sexual abuse,” Niego said.

    Anyone know where I can learn about these signs and symptoms?

    • Posted by Anonymous on

      Yes, during this session they mentioned “Our Children,Our Responsibility “ It is a day or half day session for the public. Hopefully it is delivered regularly.

  10. Posted by Omg on

    Omg! Someone please stop these MLAs from speaking in the legislative assembly! They are an absolute embarrassment to themselves, their people, and the whole territory of Nunavut! Of all the trauma that happens to children… they have the audacity to say they are uncomfortable with children rights!?!??!

    Very interesting when you search past new stories and you find certain MLAs who have taken advantage of children and then go on to say they are uncomfortable with children rights! Makes sense now

    • Posted by Jimmy James on

      Nicely worded. Certain MLA’s do have interesting pasts.
      It surprises me when these leaders talk about ethics, leadership, and respect in the work place, community and Nunavut as a whole but don’t shine that light to hard on themselves or the other MLAs sitting beside/across from them. People elected into office should pass the same background standards as the RCMP or other positions in law enforcement or positions of trust (teachers/nurses)?? Maybe that’s asking for to much? Brushing children’s rights & well being to the side & comparing it to past approaches is absurd! Children/youth are grappling with so much more these days, and we are ignoring them…

  11. Posted by Crystal Clarity on

    Towtongie, Quassa, and Mikkungwak…. I am sure your ignorant comments are causing jaws to drop everywhere. For anyone reading this article or who was present during the presentation to the committee. This is the kind of attitude which necessitates the need for an advocate for children and youth. This line of thought reminds me of when Quassa tried to use IQ as a defence for sexual assault. Now the idea of a child having rights is “alien” or a “spoiled brat”. A children and youth, like women are not chattel to do with as you please…..not slavery, not working, not sex workers, not something to be ignored or abused, ……… yes they have rights to the basics of shelter, food , clothing, love, and to just be normal, happy kids. The people who find that “alien” or unnecessary are promoting a society which hides the wrongs done to children and youth. Shame on you!

  12. Posted by Wow on

    I am shocked that this has only received 18 comments.. like really!?

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