The Yukon Liberals used their majority to vote down an NDP motion for an independent review of territorial group homes.
The government insists the review being done by the territory’s child and youth advocate has the independence the NDP was looking for.
MLAs debated the motion March 28 as a growing number of whistleblowers allege mistreatment and violence in the Yukon’s child protection system.
Most recently the CBC has interviewed whistleblowers alleging, among other things, assessments to determine whether a child is safe in their home are sometimes done over the phone, instead of via a home visit.
That’s on top of other whistleblowers who have claimed there is violence and mistreatment of children going on inside the Yukon’s group homes.
The Yukon’s child and youth advocate, Annette King, has said she will be doing an independent systematic review of group homes. She has yet to release any details of what the review will cover.
The advocate is meant to be arm’s-length from the government.
NDP MLA Kate White said the motion, which was supported by the Yukon Party, was tabled because of the appearance of a lack of independence being given to the advocate.
“It’s not in criticism of the office. My concern is that, whether the government realized it or not, the steps that were taken caused confusion, and that confusion has now made an office that is independent appear less independent to the community.”
White pointed to a press release sent by the Yukon government last week prior to the Child and Youth Advocate Office saying anything about the review.
“That is when it started to get muddied, because the … the first person (talking about the review) should have been the office, and it should not have been government,” White said.
There’s also been concern about a memo sent from the health department’s assistant deputy minister to staff claiming King was going to “submit the draft terms of reference” for the review.
King has said she is not required to submit any terms of reference to the government.
The union as well as some of the CBC’s whistleblowers have called for an Outside review, according to reports.
“When, purposely or inadvertently, government takes steps that effectively undermine the … potential for that office to exercise its independence by public statements, by press releases and by memos to staff, it has created confusion that they alone can dispel,” Hanson said.
Justice Minister Tracy-Anne McPhee said she “fundamentally” disagrees with the idea that the advocate is not independent.
The government is required to disclose information to the advocate and answer questions, McPhee said.
“She has the authority and the power to conduct an independent review — in fact, the independent review that is being requested in this motion.”
McPhee acknowledged that Yukoners are being asked to trust the government.
“We are asking them to trust that the safety of children is our top priority and that we will take action to address the ills, systemic issues and concerns that many — including us, as members of this legislative assembly and representatives of the people of the Yukon — are aware of and believe to be true concerns and true issues.”
All of the employees who have spoken to the CBC said they fear reprisal if they come forward. Both opposition parties claim to have received similar messages from fearful public servants.
Following question period Richard Mostyn, the minister responsible for the public service commission, asked people to come forward with concerns they have about the way children are being treated.
He said the government needs more details to take action.
“When did this happen? What community did it happen in? What the dates were. We don’t have any of that information,” he said.
“If we had it we could do a better job of addressing those problems but we can’t. So I’m imploring our civil servants that if they have a concern to please speak to your supervisor. If you do not feel comfortable speaking to your supervisor please talk to your deputy.”
McPhee said the government wants to give assurances publicly that “there won’t be retribution.”
Mostyn said people could also come to him after that if they are unhappy with how things are being handled.
Yukon’s public interest disclosure commissioner Diane McLeod-McKay said it’s not clear whether a whistleblower would be protected from reprisal under the legislation if they went directly to a minister.
The rules say reprisal protection extends to an employee who seeks advice about making a disclosure from a supervisor, a deputy minister, or the disclosure commissioner.
McLeod-McKay said she’d have to looking at the specific facts in individual cases before deciding if reprisal protection would cover someone.
“These risks highlight the need to obtain advice prior to making a disclosure to ensure the proper channels are followed,” she said in an email.
The whistleblower legislation provides different protection than what is in the Child and Youth Advocate Act.
Under the act, no one can be fired if they help the advocate with an investigation. The fine for violating the act is up to $10,000 or six months in jail.
If McLeod-McKay believes someone is being punished after following her legislation and the government doesn’t act on her recommendations, she can send the case to an arbiter who can then order the government to act.
Earlier this week she said she and the advocate were discussing ways someone could participate in the advocate’s review while maintaining protection under whistleblower legislation.
Contact Ashley Joannou at firstname.lastname@example.org