FREDERICTON — New Brunswick's auditor general says vulnerable children in group homes are at risk because of poor planning, ineffective standards and weak monitoring by the Department of Social Development.
Kim MacPherson says the failure to adequately manage the placement and care of the children can result in suicide attempts, addictions, long-term mental health challenges and homelessness.
"These weaknesses could result in safety risks to the children, poor quality of care, lack of available beds and services, unsuccessful outcomes for the children and poor value for taxpayer dollars," she said Tuesday as she presented two volumes of her annual report to a committee of the provincial legislature.
MacPherson says a decline in available foster homes means more children — and younger children — are being housed in group homes.
"There are more children between the age of six and 10, and what was more concerning is children under the age of five are now being placed in group homes," she said.
MacPherson said as part of her investigation she visited a group home where she saw a four-year-old child.
"I would say that the system is failing these children. We are providing their basic needs, but these are children that come from very troubled backgrounds, suffering from neglect or abuse or both," she said.
In her report, MacPherson said it's estimated that every 10 children placed in a group home instead of a foster home costs the province $1.6 million annually.
Liberal Opposition member Lisa Harris says the department needs to provide greater supports to encourage more foster families.
People's Alliance Leader Kris Austin said it's critical to increase funding for foster families, but there's also a need for greater training.
"If you're going to become a foster parent, there should be adequate training that ties into that funding. It's hard to raise a child with the economy the way it is today," he said.
The auditor general makes 17 recommendations to improve standards and procedures.
Dorothy Shephard, minister of social development, said government has been looking at options to improve the system.
"Is there a potential to increase foster care money? I can't say that today. We have to evaluate to see where we're at," she told a news conference Tuesday.
"I think we need to recognize that it's a different society right now. It's not the easiest thing for families who have two parents working to take on the care of children. It's challenging right now and we're examining every way possible to increase foster homes," she said.
MacPherson's report also looked at universities and concluded the province isn't keeping them accountable for the funding they receive. She says over the last decade, the four publicly funded universities and the Maritime College of Forest technology have received over $2 billion in operating grants.
MacPherson said even when there was some monitoring, no corrective action was taken when performance targets were not met.
She cited the example of the agreement to expand the nursing programs at the University of New Brunswick and the University of Moncton. MacPherson said the province paid close to $100 million, yet there were fewer places in the programs when the agreement expired than when it started in 2005.
On a positive note, MacPherson said she's encouraged by the province's second consecutive surplus but said the government needs to set targets for debt reduction.
The provincial government recorded a surplus of $73 million for the last fiscal year, but net debt increased by $33 million to hit a record high of $14 billion.
MacPherson said she's also concerned with the $4.6-billion debt at NB Power and local government debt of $950 million. She says if they were to default on their repayments, the province would be on the hook.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Dec. 3, 2019.
Kevin Bissett, The Canadian Press