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Kim Adair, Nova Scotia auditor general, released reports on youth care homes and on the province's progress of implementing the auditor's reports in 2019, 2020 and 2021. (Office of the Auditor General of Nova Scotia)

Children in emergency care homes staying for months longer than they’re supposed to

By Jacob Moore May 7, 2024 | 12:51 PM

Children in emergency care homes stay for eight months on average, when they’re only suppose to stay for up to four days.

That’s one of the reasons emergency care homes lack oversight, which creates more problems for an already vulnerable population, according to a new report from Nova Scotia’s auditor general.

Auditor general Kim Adair released the report on Tuesday, along with a separate report on the government’s progress to implement recommendations from 2019, 2020 and 2021.

For the full list of recommendations, visit the auditor general’s office website.

Emergency youth care

She recommends that the province monitor whether social workers are meeting with children, and if they aren’t, social workers must contact the child, including visiting in-person.

She says the province should also record and track critical incidents reported by child and youth care homes to identify trends and how to manage those risks.

On average, they stay in emergency arrangements for eight months, when they’re only supposed to be there for up to four days.

Plans to help children in emergency care homes often go missing or aren’t updated, which prevents children from getting the care the need.

The number of children in care has increased from 36 in 2017-18 to 138 in 2022-23, the report says. The annual cost to emergency care homes rose from $4.6 million to $27.9 million in that same time. Temporary emergency arrangements are not licensed or inspected by the government, which contributes to weak oversight, Adair says.

An internal government review from 2022 assessed how well the government was following temporary emergency arrangements, which made recommendations to the government. Adair says the government was not tracking whether those recommendations were implemented.

Minister agrees to recommendations

Minister of Community Services Brendan Maguire, says his department has accepted the 20 recommendations from the auditor’s report, and already begun some work.

He adds that the department will find better ways to document everything that needs to be documented. The government already began looking into potentially hiring people to reduce the burden on the administrative side of social work, he says.

“My commitment, first and foremost, are to the children in care,” says Maguire. “But at the same time, I’m extremely committed to making sure that this is one of the best workplaces to be at.”

The cost of emergency youth care may have gone up, but Maguire attributes that in part to inflation. He says that the department would like to spend less money, but he’s more concerned with the safety of children than cost.

Reinforcing existing challenges

In a statement, the Nova Scotia College of Social Workers says the auditor general has an “inadequate grasp” of child services in the province, which led to “recommendations that reinforce existing challenges.”

The college says more standardization, administration and management would most likely make social workers spend more time at their desks instead of with families and children.

“The Auditor General’s report recognizes that conditions are severe but fails to capture why,” writes Alec Stratford, Executive Director of the college.

He says case load standards are outdated for the complexity of modern families and poor housing support lead people into poverty. Children and families are also impacted by a limited access to non-medical health factors, like education, food security and housing, he says.

In place of the auditor’s recommendations, the college wants to implement its own framework, developed with the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives’ office in Nova Scotia in 2020.

Key recommendations include:

  • include immediate poverty alleviation efforts
  • prioritization of family and community connections
  • cultural caregiving practices
  • quality childcare
  • and mental health services provision

Previous audit progress

Adair also released a separate audit report on how well the province is implementing the auditor general’s recommendations from 2019, 2020 and 2021.

The province is implementing less and less those recommendations, despite agreeing to do so within two years of their respective reports.

For the 2019 recommendations, the auditor says the government has implemented 76 per cent, or 35 of the 46 total.

It declines for the 2020 recommendations, where the auditor says the government has implemented 45 per cent, or 9 out of 20.

The government has done even less for 2021, with 42 per cent of recommendations, or 11 out of 26, implemented so far.

Bridge inspections

Most of the recommendations in a 2019 report on bridge projects in central and wester districts of Nova Scotia were not implemented.

Adair says the Department of Public Works isn’t inspecting bridges “as required.”

Public Works also has not created criteria to prioritize when to repair and replace parts of bridges, she says.

Public Works declined an interview request.

In an email, spokesperson Blaise Theriault says the department has made progress on the recommendations since the auditor general gathered the information in 2023, and they will implement all recommendations “in the coming months.”