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Eighty-six per cent of children in the province’s care last year were identified as Indigenous, climbing from 75 per cent in 2018.DARRYL DYCK/The Canadian Press

Saskatchewan is failing to conduct regular reviews and criminal record checks of foster families, with some going without inspection for as long as three decades, the Provincial Auditor has found.

Judy Ferguson released a report Tuesday that said delayed record checks were eventually completed and did not reveal any concerns, but she warned that such delays by staff at the Ministry of Social Services could expose children to threats if they are placed in homes that have not yet been reviewed.

“Overall, we found that the ministry has good rules, but the staff are not following them,” Ms. Ferguson said at a news conference.

The number of children in Saskatchewan’s child welfare and justice systems has significantly increased, hitting 3,412 children in 2019 – the highest in more than a decade. And most of those in the province’s care are Indigenous. Eighty-six per cent of children in the province’s care last year were identified as Indigenous, climbing from 75 per cent in 2018.

Amid a rising need for foster care services and safety monitoring, staff are failing to complete annual reviews and background checks, resulting in delayed assessments of adults providing foster care, according to the Provincial Auditor’s report. Of the 30 foster families studied, the Auditor found one file in which no criminal record check was conducted. The worker also took 14 months to complete a ministry record check – which looks for a history of abuse or neglect – for the two adult children living in the home.

Ms. Ferguson recommended the ministry ensure that staff are adhering to policies without any delays, and that it require periodic criminal record checks on adults with children in care.

As of March, 2019, 856 children lived in 486 foster homes. But with 65 resources workers monitoring an average of 20 families each, the workload is not the issue, according to the report. Management attributed the delays to employee turnover, vacancies and staff missing details when completing reports, Ms. Ferguson said, adding that “staff turnover shouldn’t be the cause of certain procedures being done.”

But staffing issues will only worsen as caseloads rise in an industry in which there are already low employee retention rates, according to NDP social services critic Nicole Rancourt. She said the ministry should consider putting limits on the number of cases that each employee manages to ensure they have the time to address the needs of complex cases.

“We’ve been hearing from foster families that staff aren’t able to meet needs and they’re overburdened,” she said. “When we see that there’s a lot of turnover in staff and vacancies, that just means more workload for ministry workers. It’s a very stressful ministry to work in and because these cases are getting unmanageable and [staff] feel like they’re not able to meet the needs there, that is one of the big reasons why the ministry is facing the vacancy rate that they’re seeing.”

The ministry intends to review training and support programs to assist resource workers to ensure they conduct regular safety reviews and are properly completing reports and logging them into the system, said Natalie Huber, assistant deputy minister of child and family programs. She said the ministry has also hired more staff in recent years to accommodate not only the rising numbers of children in care, but also increased complexity and sensitivity of cases.

“It’s a high-stress position working with our most vulnerable citizens in very difficult times,” Ms. Huber said. “We sometimes find that this isn’t the right career for certain individuals. We need to identify and understand where our staff is at and what types of tools, training and mentorship is required to help the retention rates.”

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