Aboriginal child welfare officials are launching a full-scale audit of Southeast Child and Family Services and have asked the provincial and federal auditors to consider doing the same.
The 220-page review, released Thursday, outlined a confusing and suspicious financial relationship between the child welfare agency and the tribal council run by eight chiefs.
Reviewers found at least $1 million transferred out of the child welfare agency to the tribal council for questionable administrative fees, loans and other transfers that didn't appear to benefit kids in care.
"Maybe it went to kids. Maybe it went to legitimate uses," said Elsie Flette, chief executive officer of the Southern Child and Family Services Authority. "We just can't say. We just don't know. It seems money came out of Child and Family and the tribal council should have reported back to Child and Family about how that money was used."
The review was forwarded earlier this week to Manitoba Auditor General Carol Bellringer and federal Auditor General Sheila Fraser, both of whom have shown a noted interest in child welfare, especially funding and accountability issues.
Bellringer said she has taken an initial look at the review, which she received Thursday evening, and saw enough to agree that serious issues were raised.
She said her office will now be taking a more thorough look to decide how to proceed. That could involve putting Southeast Child and Family Services on her to-do list for audits in the coming year, launching an audit immediately or deciding there are enough safeguards now in place to ensure problems get rooted out and fixed.
"It will take a more thorough analysis to decide exactly how we'll proceed," said Bellringer.
Staff at Fraser's office in Ottawa said roughly the same thing. The federal auditor's topics only become public once Parliament has learned of them and Fraser's mandate is to focus on high-risk areas that could cost taxpayers significant sums or put public safety at risk.
The Southeast review found a host of administrative and operational problems at the agency, such as shoddy documentation on child case files and a morale-damaging disconnect between staff in the Winnipeg office and social workers in the remote reserves.
The Southeast review also outlined, as best investigators could given limited access to the tribal council's books, how millions meant for kids in care was controlled by the tribal council and wrapped up in the chiefs' complex network of companies.
While chiefs controlled all the cash, they offered little policy and management oversight of the child welfare agency.
The Southern Authority is about to launch a deeper audit into the agency's finances and how they were woven into those of the tribal council.
It was launched more than two years ago by senior aboriginal child welfare officials following the inquest into 14-year-old Tracia Owen's death. She hanged herself after being moved more than 60 times between foster homes and her alcoholic parents. She was sexually exploited.
WHAT IT FOUND:
Two big things -- one expected and one surprising. Like many struggling aboriginal agencies, staff weren't keeping very good records on kids and there were poor supports and training for overworked social workers. But the review also outlined how millions in funding meant for kids was controlled by the tribal council and very badly accounted for. See the entire review at www.winnipegfreepress.com
WHAT'S BEING DONE:
Over the last two years, since the launch of the review, the Southern Authority has had its own administrator running the agency, making improvements and separating it completely from the tribal council.