Nunatsiaq Online
NEWS: Nunavut November 14, 2010 - 1:15 pm

Lawyers: abused Nunavut children go unprotected

Social services hamstrung by lack of resources, poor direction

JIM BELL
Cambridge Bay may be a chilly place in the winter, but for numerous abused youth and children, Nunavut's child protection regime is even colder. (PHOTO BY JANE GEORGE)
Cambridge Bay may be a chilly place in the winter, but for numerous abused youth and children, Nunavut's child protection regime is even colder. (PHOTO BY JANE GEORGE)

Nunavut social workers are incapable of helping abused and neglected children and youth who end up breaking the law, a group of Kitikmeot-based lawyers said last week.

“Children in Nunavut are not being taken care of,” senior lawyer Peter Harte said in a news release issued Nov. 12 from the Kitikmeot Law Centre.

“Again and again we find ourselves dealing with children facing criminal charges and still more criminal charges and it is not because these children are criminals.  They are victims,” Harte said in the release.

In an interview, Harte cited the desperate case of a young girl under the age of 16, living somewhere in Nunavut, who was sexually molested, repeatedly, by people known to her parents.

The girl now faces numerous criminal charges and has ended up in the local drunk tank more than a dozen times.

Harte said all of the sexual assaults were reported to the Government of Nunavut’s Health and Social Services Department over a period of two years, but no one appeared able to help her.

“Even when the RCMP wrote to Social Services with all of these statistics, begging for help, it took another two weeks and still more charges before Social Services stepped in,” Harte said in the news release.

In the interview, Harte said Section 7 (3) of Nunavut’s Child and Family Services Act gives child protection workers the power to apprehend children who find themselves in such situations.

The law lets social workers apprehend a child who has been sexually molested by another person who the parent knew and where the parent was unwilling or unable to protect the child, Harte said.

In this and many other cases, nothing was done, Harte said.

“The facts that you’ve got in the press release apply to four similar kinds of cases. Add a drunk tank arrest, take away a sex assault, I know of four similar ones that are going on so it’s not unique,” he said.

But he doesn’t blame front-line social workers for the absence of adequate child protection in Nunavut.

“The social services staff are amongst the best we have ever had.  They work hard and they are creative, but they face overwhelming problems and they are seriously short of solutions,” Harte said.

“But I think in many cases they are overwhelmed. When you come right down to it, it may be there just aren’t enough fingers to stick in the dike.”

The issue, Harte said, is likely rooted in a combination of problems: overworked and overwhelmed staff, lack of training, poor policies and procedures, and poor legislation.

Another factor may be poor direction from the GN, Harte said.

“The staff are given a relatively small area in which to work because the interpretation of the act is pretty limited. It’s probably the way the ministry and its staff direct local staff to deal with these kinds of problems,” he said.

The end result is numerous troubled kids whose plight is ignored by the community and the child protection system — until they end up in court.

This means the criminal justice system becomes a substitute for an adequate child protection system, Harte said.

And there, lawyers and judges find there’s little they can do to help abused and neglected youth.

“We don’t have a group home in Nunavut. We don’t have an addictions treatment facility. The only way you can get treatment as a kid is in a young offender’s facility in Iqaluit. So the judge at that point ends up throwing up his or her hands,” Harte said.

Often, the best solution for a troubled young offender is a lengthy period of incarceration, during which they at least stand a chance of getting treatment for their addictions and mental health problems.

But criminal defence lawyers are ethically required, if possible, to get their clients out of custody, Harte said.

“Who can ask for their client to get an extra six months in jail?” he said.

Yet another problem is that Social Services does not seem to pay attention to what goes on in youth court.

“It’s just support. They don’t have to apprehend the kid. They should just see the kid and say, geeze, this kid’s been on the docket for the last three circuits, maybe there’s a problem with this family we should look at,” Harte said.

For this reason, Harte supports the idea of creating an ombudsman to act as an advocate for troubled children — an idea that Cambridge Bay MLA Keith Peterson, now the justice minister, put forward when he served as a regular MLA during the last legislative assembly.

This isn’t the first time that workers in the justice system have pointed to serious dysfunction with Nunavut’s child welfare system.

In 2008, Steve Lipton, a Calgary youth court judge,  said “child welfare in Nunavut is incompetent,” in relation to a 16-year-old boy from Kugluktuk who got into trouble while staying at a group home in Calgary.

“This young person can never be repatriated to Nunavut because there is nowhere near the support there that he needs,” Lipton was quoted as saying by the Calgary Herald.

To fix the child welfare system, the Government of Nunavut has launched a review of the Child and Family Services Act and a review of social services in Nunavut.

As part of the work, the department hired a consultant to conduct a “knowledge sharing forum” between Dec. 15, 2009 and Dec. 17, 2009 in Iqaluit.

A report from the forum, issued quietly this past fall, makes numerous recommendations concerning “elders” and “Inuit culture.”

Harte says it’s good thing for the GN to take a look at child protection and the social services system, but the mere fact of a review doesn’t do anything right now to actually help troubled youth.

“The problem is that, although the Government of Nunavut has committed itself to undertaking this important review, in the meantime this child has run into this bad situation and for her, nothing has changed,” Harte said.

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