Nunavut children still suffer from botched communications, watchdog says
Outgoing representative for children and youth appears at legislative hearing
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.
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.
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.