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Published October 15, 2011, 11:30 PM

$1.5 million federal grant aims to reduce foster care placement

‘Early intervention’ would shorten stays
FARGO – A $1.5 million federal grant will help extend a program to reduce the need for child foster care among American Indian families in seven North Dakota counties.

By: Patrick Springer, INFORUM

FARGO – A $1.5 million federal grant will help extend a program to reduce the need for child foster care among American Indian families in seven North Dakota counties.

The four project sites are Fargo (Cass County), Bismarck (Burleigh and Morton counties), Devils Lake (Ramsey and Rolette counties) and Minot (Ward and Mountrail counties).

The grant, awarded to The Village Family Service Center in cooperation with the North Dakota Department of Human Services, aims to reduce the number of foster care placements of American Indian children.

American Indian children account for more than a quarter of foster care placements, even though they comprise less than 10 percent of the population of North Dakota’s children.

The program’s approach, which has found success in North Dakota and nationally, involves working with families to prevent or shorten foster care placements.

“We can hope to engage the family in ways in which the children will not be placed in foster care,” said Sandi Zaleski, program supervisor at The Village, based in Fargo. “It’s an early intervention at the time of the immediate removal of the child.”

In cases where the child is placed in a foster home, program counselors work with extended family and the community to find ways to safely bring the child home.

The Family Engagement for Native American Youth project will serve 100 children and their families a year, translating to 300 children over the period of the federal grant.

The Village has used the family group decision-making approach, which seeks to shorten foster care stays, since 2006.

“They are seeing reduced numbers of kids in foster home placements,” said Tara Muhlhauser, director of child and family services for the North Dakota Department of Human Services.

Recently, The Village adopted the family team decision-making model, aimed at preventing foster care placements, in Cass and Burleigh counties.

“The entire attempt is to engage the family and community as soon as possible,” Zaleski said.

For example, if a child needs night supervision, “If the parents aren’t able to do that, can grandma help?” Muhlhauser said.

Using the family engagement approach has produced good results in Cass County, including the recently adopted preventive focus.

“I know we have prevented a lot of kids from going into foster care,” said Chip Ammerman, director of Cass County Social Services.

“Our foster care numbers have dropped dramatically over the past five years,” even though the number of child welfare cases has remained stable, he said.

In cases where foster care is needed, only 10 percent require placement for more than one to three days, Ammerman said.

Child welfare officials always looked for ways to keep children in the home, he added. That isn’t a reflection on foster parents, who are caring and dedicated, but children are better off with their own families when they are safe and properly cared for,

Ammerman said.

The Village will work with American Indian families in ways that are culturally sensitive.

“It should always be culturally sensitive,” Ammerman said, “but the approach should always be the same,” working with families to solve problems to keep children safe.

The grant program’s results will be evaluated by Melanie Sage, assistant professor at the University of North Dakota’s Department of Social Work.

Sage said the project’s partners hope the results will be used to develop “best practice strategies” to become a national model.

Readers can reach Forum reporter Patrick Springer at (701) 241-5522