AG sounds alarm for high-risk children

Daniel MacEachern
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Report says children at increased risk because of lack of documentation

Charlene Johnson

The province’s auditor general warns that children in Newfoundland and Labrador are at increased danger of physical and sexual abuse because not enough monitoring is being done of children in high-risk environments.

John Noseworthy’s report, re-leased Wednesday, reviewed 46 case files from the province’s protective intervention program spanning January 2005 to December 2009. The program aims to secure the safety and health of children at risk of being mistreated by their parents.

The report determined that under long-term protection guidelines, 464 risk-assessment instruments — a series of questions that help determine the likelihood of harm to a child — should have been used on those 46 files, but just 48 (10.3 per cent) were done.

There were also 464 family-centred action plans — designed to outline family interaction, with the help of a social worker, to reduce the risk of harm to children — required, but just 27 were done (5.8 per cent).

The report also noted that of those 46 files, 17 didn’t have a single risk-assessment instrument completed, while 28 of them didn’t have a single family-centred action plan completed.

While in some areas, especially in the Labrador-Grenfell regional health authority, the issue is compounded by difficulties recruiting and retaining social workers. Noseworthy called it a significant problem that the guidelines set out by the department of Child, Youth and Family Services aren’t being followed.

“We find 90 per cent and 94 per cent non-compliance? That’s not acceptable at all,” he said. “And as a result of that, children may be at risk, and I don’t think they’re in a position to conclude that they’re not, because they didn’t do the forms that they’re supposed to in order to make that determination.”

Charlene Johnson, the minister of Child, Youth and Family Services, said there is a lot of work that needs to be done — work that the government identified in a 2008 review, prompting the creation of the Child, Youth and Family Services department in the first place.

“What the AG is saying today is not new information for us here in the department, and that’s exactly the new department was formed, because of the review that we did,” she said.

“Having said that, it’s absolutely critical that social workers and front-line workers document their work in a timely and in a proper fashion.”

Johnson also said risk-assessment instruments is just one method social workers use to determine when children are at risk.

“Social workers manage risk every day, and they can’t eliminate risk, but it’s not to say that they’re not always doing assessments of risk,” she said. “There’s always clinical assessment that they’re doing, and this risk-assessment instrument is one tool in all of that.”

In the cases that were studied, Johnson noted, 12 children — 26 per cent — were placed under program care because of a determination of unacceptable risk, indicating that significant clinical work is still being done.

“Could they be doing a better job by documenting in a timely and proper manner these risk-assessment instruments? Absolutely. That’s why we formed the new department. That’s why we are going to be rolling out a new training unit, a new quality unit,” said Johnson, who said social workers have expressed frustration with the current, cumbersome system, and work is underway on a new $15-million case-management system.

“We are able to tailor that system to our needs in terms of how we want reports printed, at the end of the week, end of the month, those types of things, so that will help with the documentation.”

The new system will take three years to put in place, said Johnson, and in the interim the department will be striving to improve its documentation.

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Organizations: Department of Child, Family Services, Youth and Family Services department

Geographic location: Newfoundland and Labrador

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