An attentive crowd of approximately 30 people asked a government committee reviewing the Northwest Territories’ Child and Family Services Act to consider improving protection for foster families from false complaints while redefining the role of extended families in child protection matters during a meeting last week.
The Government of the Northwest Territories Standing Committee on Social Programs met with local health and social service officials, foster parents and other citizens to hear their concerns during the meeting, which was held at the Ptarmigan Inn on April 13.
Tu Nedhe MLA Tom Beaulieu, the committee’s chair, said the review of the Act was necessary to address numerous concerns raised by both the public and government officials over the past few years.
“The well-being of our children and their families is vital to the future of the Northwest Territories,” Beaulieu said in his opening remarks.
The current Child and Family Services Act came into force in 1998 following a similar review, Beaulieu told those in attendance. While the committee was there to listen to people’s concerns in person, Beaulieu said written submissions could be submitted until April 30.
After concerns were raised with the current Act, the legislative assembly agreed to hold a comprehensive review, which included sending the committee to various communities throughout the NWT to gather concerns. The meeting in Hay River was the fourth in a series of ten.
“Some of the meetings have become very emotional as people speak about their children’s apprehension,” Beaulieu stated, noting one common theme is to get extended families and communities more involved in child protection matters.
Great Slave MLA Glen Abernethy, Frame Lake MLA Wendy Bisaro and Weledeh MLA Bob Bromley also sit on the committee. Abernethy, the committee’s deputy chair, was unable to attend the meeting. Mackenzie Delta MLA David Krutko was also in attendance.
The committee has met with stakeholders and professionals in both the NWT and Alberta to discuss what programs are available in the NWT as well as in other jurisdictions. The committee also hired an organization to carry out a series of 50 individual interviews with parents, grandparents and youth who are involved in the current child welfare system.
During the meeting, the audience heard from a panel of practitioners including Bruce MacLaurin, an assistant professor in the Faculty of Social Work at the University of Calgary and the co-author of the Canadian Incidence Study; Sharon Sutherland, an assistant professor in the Faculty of Law at the University of British Columbia, who is an expert in child protection mediation and collaboration; Simone Fournal, the manager of Children and Family Services for HSS; Angela Jacobs, the coordinator of the Family Support Program, and others who have been affected by the legislation.
MacLaurin has spent the past 15 years involved in studies looking into the outcome of child welfare including the Canadian Incidence Study examining child abuse and neglect in 1998, 2003 and 2009. The data collected has provided professionals with a better understanding of the “complex” topic of child welfare, MacLaurin explained.
“What we’re finding is the increase isn’t really driven by physical abuse or sexual abuse,” he said. “It’s really being driven by an explosion of cases of witnessing domestic violence, neglect and emotional maltreatment. This is kind of a new landscape for child welfare compared to what was happening 25 years ago.”
Carol Heron-Colisimo, the clinical supervisor of Child and Family Services for the Hay River Health and Social Services Department, told the committee that local families in need require more resources than are currently being offered. She also commended her staff of child protection workers for doing well at a demanding job.
“These are people … wanting to make a difference in people’s lives,” she said.
Michele Stephens, the president of the Northwest Territories Foster Family Coalition, called the Act’s current cutoff age of 16, “ridiculous.” The cutoff age was 18 prior to the Act been changed in 1998.
“I have never met a 16 year-old who could make a decision and hold on to it for an hour,” Stephens, a well-known foster parent, said.
Stephens also asked the committee to help reduce the workloads currently faced by local social workers, to create a committee to examine allegations filed against foster families and to help foster families secure legal representation.
“If we don’t protect our foster families, we’re in a lot of trouble,” she told the committee.
The GNWT should also provide a “full-side investment” in the training of foster parents, including training all foster parents in both first aid and PRIDE (Parent Resources for Information, Development and Education) to help them deal with children whose mothers abused drugs during their pregnancy, Stephens explained.
“We don’t know what to expect from these explosive children,” she said. “We need to train our foster parents to deal with (them).”
Hay River District Education Authority member Kandis Jamieson asked the committee to consider charging parents who refuse to send their children to school with abuse in the revamped Act.
“Nobody is doing anything about it and that scares me to death,” she said.
Social worker Anne Gill raised concerns over identifying truancy as abuse, saying many youth gain valuable traditional knowledge by working on the land with their parents and elders throughout the school year.
“Social workers have an uphill climb – we’re looked at as enforcers,” she said. “This is just another (form of) enforcement.”
Stephens said she believes the committee is on the right track.
“I think they’ve got the message from the people,” she said. “I think what we’re hearing tonight and from the other meetings is that they’re going to work at fine-tuning it.”
Beaulieu said the committee hopes to deliver its report to members of the legislative assembly by the fall, with a planned implementation of a revamped Act sometime by the end of the 16th Legislative Assembly.
Krutko did not share his colleague’s confidence.
“If we’re looking at October (for the report), we’ve got a year to draft the legislation, to look at redrafting or simply make major amendments,” he said. “Those major amendments mean you’re looking at a redraft of the Child and Family Services Act and I think that by doing major revisions to the Act that it would probably take you into the next assembly.”