Kinship foster families in N.W.T. say they 'don't have any rights'

EDITOR'S NOTE: A previous version of this story has been updated to remove details that may identify foster families.

Two kinship foster parents are speaking out about the difficulties of raising an extended family member in the Northwest Territories foster care system.

The foster parents are coming forward in response to a series of stories earlier this month, stemming from a scathing public letter by the Foster Family Coalition of the NWT that outlines serious allegations from foster parents against front-line workers with the territory's Child and Family Services division.

Tammy Roberts, the executive director of the Foster Family Coalition, told the CBC that kinship foster parents are often perceived to need less help because they're related to the child — but that's often not the case. 

"There is just that added stress on these families," Roberts said, noting a kinship foster parent's closeness to a child's biological parents. "Being included in family dynamics that regular foster homes are not, can be extremely challenging."

She's our niece but we're not allowed to sign anything for her. - One kinship foster parent

The N.W.T. has 140 foster homes that were accepting placements between 2018 and 2019, with one in three of these homes run by extended family members, according to the Department of Health and Social Services. 

CBC News cannot legally identify children in care or their foster and biological families. The names of the foster parents who spoke to CBC have been changed. CBC was not able to independently verify the parents' claims. 

'We don't have any rights'

Four months into fostering her niece, one foster parent said she has very little control over the kind of care that her niece receives. 

Cindy said Child and Family Services was asked to check in on her nieces at the beginning of last summer because their parents are addicts and were no longer communicating with Cindy's family.

Cindy said it took the department a month and a half to locate the biological parents. Cindy said front-line workers discovered that the girls were living under unhealthy conditions.

Jean Delisle/CBC

The department then called Cindy that night and said the girls needed an immediate place to stay because that environment was not suitable for them. Cindy immediately took in one niece, and her sister-in-law is fostering the other. 

"We don't have any rights … so that's the weird thing," Cindy said, listing common guardian duties like signing field trip forms. "She's our niece but we're not allowed to sign anything for her." 

She said she also tried convincing her front-line worker to help get counselling services for her niece, and said she was told there would be financial support forthcoming — but has received neither.

Cindy also said it took over two months for a mandatory home inspection to take place.  

When communications with the front-line worker fell through, Cindy said she tried to take matters into her own hands and asked if she could take her niece to see a school guidance counsellor, but was told by the front-line worker that she could not do that.

Still waiting a year in

According to the N.W.T. government, front-line workers are supposed to work with a child's family and foster parents to create a care plan no later than 23 days after a child is apprehended.

Another kinship foster parent said such a plan has not been finalized for her and her foster child, a year in.

A five-month-old baby arrived at his aunt Brenda's care after RCMP called in social workers to apprehend him.

Honestly, I gave up. - One kinship foster parent

Brenda said the RCMP said the parents exposed the infant to cocaine smoke for at least a 30-day period. She was initially told he would stay with her for a month.

The child has had two different front-line workers on his case in the last year, said Brenda. Both workers would not respond to important text messages and would sometimes give 20 minutes notice before a meeting with the biological parents, said Brenda. 

"Given the fact that he's very young, there are still certain things he needs to take with him," Brenda said. "If I'm not aware that a visit is going to happen, I can't have these things ready to go." 

Brenda said she also does not have access to his medical files, making it difficult for him to get his required vaccinations. 

Now, Brenda said she tries to communicate with the front-line worker as little as possible. 

"Honestly, I gave up," Brenda said. 

Training needed, says advocate

Diane Thom, the N.W.T. minister of health and social services, told the CBC last week she does not know whether plan-of-care reports are being provided on time.  

When asked about other specific kinship foster family related allegations, Thom said the assertions saddened her and said that she has told the department that the foster care system is a priority.  

Just because you're caring for a relative's child doesn't mean that you don't need support. - Tammy Roberts, Foster Family Coalition of NWT

Most kinship foster parents are called during an emergency, Roberts said. Because of the urgency of the placement, few kinship foster families know from the beginning what rights they have over the child in their care. 

That's why training, she said, is important for kinship foster families to receive. 

"Just because you're caring for a relative's child doesn't mean that you don't need support and it doesn't mean that you don't need training," Roberts said. 

There is no mandatory training in the N.W.T. for prospective foster parents, Roberts continued. The coalition does have an optional training program on its website. 

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Roberts and representatives from the N.W.T. Department of Health and Social Services plan to meet on Thursday to discuss solutions to the gaps in the territory's foster care system. 

Roberts said she hopes to find some solutions at this week's meeting that can work for all foster families in the territory.