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Welfare agency misused money for indigenous kids’ care, audit revealed

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OTTAWA — A northern child-welfare agency used tax benefit payments intended for kids in care to donate prizes for community events, placed children with foster parents who failed background checks and issued bonus money to employees against an explicit order not to do so, a financial review of the agency found four years ago.

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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 27/03/2017 (2137 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

OTTAWA — A northern child-welfare agency used tax benefit payments intended for kids in care to donate prizes for community events, placed children with foster parents who failed background checks and issued bonus money to employees against an explicit order not to do so, a financial review of the agency found four years ago.

This is the same agency Manitoba’s Children’s Advocate found suffered from significant gaps in service to families and a lack of followup care in communities plagued by substance abuse, family violence and other traumas inflicted by the residential school system.

The financial review of the Island Lake First Nations Family Services agency was completed by Indigenous and Northern Affairs Canada in June 2013. It made 41 recommendations on everything from budget-making to the number of board meetings the agency should hold each year.

A report found the 25 per cent of the allowance the Island Lake First Nations Family Services agency said was used for "services to families" was questionable, since those "services" included paying for fishing derbies and cash prizes at community events.

Among the more eyebrow-raising concerns were a finding 75 per cent of almost $1 million in Children’s Special Allowance funds in 2010 and 2011 were used to pay for basic operating expenses and keep the agency from running a deficit. This money is the equivalent of child tax benefits and universal child care benefits prior to July 2016 and the Canada Child Benefit since then. By law, the money is to be used “exclusively toward the care, maintenance, education, training or advancement of the child in respect of whom it is paid.”

The report found even the 25 per cent of the allowance the agency said was used for “services to families” was questionable, since those “services” included paying for fishing derbies and cash prizes at community events.

In June 2009 the board of directors of the agency said it couldn’t “keep donating to such events as these, we can only donate for good cause like prevention.”

However in 2010 and 2011, money was provided for cash giveaways between $500 and $2,000 each at community Christmas events, as well as $1,000 for prizes at both Treaty Days events and Wapisee Days.

The financial report also found concerns children were being placed with foster parents who had failed security checks, who hadn’t had security checks completed or whose licences had expired. In other instances, foster parents were licensed with the expectation that deficiencies in their home would be fixed after the fact, but nobody ever checked.

In addition, in December 2009, the agency paid $46,000 in Christmas bonuses to staff and board members, even though a letter from the northern authority that oversees all northern First Nations agencies explicitly warned against paying any employee bonuses just one month earlier.

Officials with Indigenous Affairs did not respond to the Free Press to explain how many of the recommendations had been implemented, or if Ottawa had done any followup to see what changes have been made at the agency since 2013.

Last month the chiefs of the four Island Lake communities ordered the executive director of the agency be suspended with pay and investigated after community members complained he was firing staff and apprehending too many kids. Last week the agency board and the northern child-welfare authority agreed to appoint co-executive directors to manage the agency for at least the next six months.

Bryan Hart, the acting chief executive officer of the northern authority, said Friday the authority has followed up on recommendations made in the children’s advocate’s report and has been working with agency to address the issues.

“Since this time, we have seen positive changes within the agency beginning as early as the latter part of 2013 and such changes continue to this day,” Hart wrote in an emailed statement.

That includes quality-assurance assessments of services, meetings to review annual service plans and quarterly meetings to identity training needs. Training of many staff members has also been completed.

Hart said the authority agrees with the children’s advocate that the greater challenges in the communities are poverty, poor housing and a lack of resources.

“While many of the solutions must necessarily come from the communities themselves, there is no escaping the reality that these challenges will require a broader partnership with the federal and provincial governments to ensure that there is a supportive environment to enable the communities to realize these important changes,” Hart wrote.

mia.rabson@freepress.mb.ca

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