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The government of the Northwest Territories has delivered a plan for major reforms to child services after a scathing report by the federal auditor-general.

“We will make steady, measurable, well-planned, well-executed progress toward improving the performance of the child and family services system of the Northwest Territories,” Bruce Cooper, deputy minister of health and social services, told a legislative committee on Wednesday.

In a report delivered in October, the auditor-general’s office found the territory isn’t meeting key responsibilities to protect children in care and the situation is deteriorating.

It found nearly two-thirds of foster homes in the N.W.T. don’t get screening as basic as a criminal record check before receiving children to look after. Auditors found one guardian had been criminally charged with assaulting the child.

The report said children are constantly shuffled around – an average of 12 times for kids in permanent care. In 2016, one child was moved 20 times.

In 2018, social workers failed to check on children in care at least every two months in 88 per cent of cases.

The report was so damning the legislature held a vote of non-confidence in Health and Social Services Minister Glen Abernethy, but he survived.

Cooper promised Wednesday that the sorry statistics in the audit will soon improve through lower caseloads for front-line workers and closer monitoring of their work. The plan also includes improving training for foster parents.

“We are taking action to strengthen recruitment of (front-line workers) and retention,” Cooper said.

A data collection system, installed in October 2017, is starting to pay off, he said.

“We now have access to data that can show how we are performing. This system has allowed us to be more nimble and improve our vigilance through real-time checking on areas of risk.”

Investigations are now reviewed on a monthly basis, Cooper said. Foster care is checked every three months, as is the frequency of contact with children in foster care.

Standards and reporting guidelines are being clarified. Ongoing quality reviews for foster homes have been instituted.

“We are seeing positive trends,” said Cooper, who promised “significant, measurable improvement” within 18 months.

He acknowledged that improving performance may well require more staff and money. The department is currently recruiting nine positions. Turnover is about 25 per cent annually.

Cooper said it is too soon to provide an estimate of the required budget.

“Let us go out the door and test some of our assumptions.”

Members of the government operations committee criticized Cooper for only providing a copy of the draft plans the day before the hearing – far too little time to analyze the proposals, they said.

Chairman Kieran Testart, a Yellowknife-area member of the legislature, pointed out that ministries are required to provide all documents under discussion at standing committees at least three days in advance.

“Although we are pleased to receive this material, we have not received it in time to review it properly,” he said. “This is not acceptable.”

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