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Overwhelmed North Dakota agency put kids at risk for child abuse, audit finds

A report released by State Auditor Josh Gallion reveals the North Dakota Department of Human Services has not followed its own policy to make prompt face-to-face contact with children suspected to be abused or neglected.

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Representative image of a child via the University of Queensland Australia
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BISMARCK — The North Dakota Department of Human Services has routinely failed to perform timely checkups on suspected victims of child abuse and neglect, according to a state audit.

It's the third time in five years the agency has been flagged for the issue, but a “drastic increase” in suspected abuse during the COVID-19 pandemic added to the agency's workload in an area where it had already struggled, said State Auditor Josh Gallion, who released the report Tuesday, Aug. 16. 

Gallion's report reveals the agency has not followed its own policy to make prompt face-to-face contact with children suspected to be abused or neglected.

The department's policy dictates social services employees, law enforcement, court staff or medical personnel are supposed to meet with children after a report of possible abuse or neglect has been filed.

The required response time for these meetings varies from 1-14 days depending on the severity of the suspected mistreatment.

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Of the 60 cases reviewed by auditors, DHS failed to check in with more than two-thirds of the children on time.

"The types of cases (reviewed by auditors) included physical injuries such as welts or cuts, educational neglect, illegal substances used during pregnancy or in front of children, children who are suicidal, and sexual abuse," according to the audit.

In the most severe cases where officials should have met with children within 24 hours, the agency averaged a 13-day response time.

And those types of cases have skyrocketed in the last two years. In 2019, fewer than 100 of the most severe reports came in to the state. That figure rose to more than 350 last year. 

“To me as a father, I want to raise awareness," Gallion said at news conference Wednesday. "If there is child abuse going on in North Dakota, in this state we can do better and we must do better.”

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North Dakota State Auditor Josh Gallion speaks at a press conference on Wednesday, Aug. 17, 2022, in Bismarck.
Jeremy Turley / Forum News Service

DHS Director Chris Jones told Forum News Service the pandemic made it harder for social workers to check on children and prevented potentially abused children from being seen in public as often.

Jones also noted that the majority of reports investigated by DHS are not deemed to be child abuse or neglect, but the checkups are vital because any amount of abuse is unacceptable.

Gallion's office recommended in the audit that the department ensures more timely meetings with suspected child abuse victims.

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The department agreed with Gallion's recommendation and said "extreme staff turnover" is to blame for the issue.

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Jones said the increase in workload and lack of adequate pay raises has made retaining social workers much more difficult. He added that government workers have experienced more negative responses from the public during the pandemic.

DHS said it plans to ask state lawmakers next year for more full-time employees to better manage the case load, but Jones noted that solving a problem as complex as child abuse and neglect requires a "generational" and "multidimensional" approach.

Jones said the state must ensure better access to affordable child care, so parents can go to work without neglecting their kids. Ensuring better social supports for young mothers would also go a long way in preventing abuse and neglect down the road, he said.

Gallion concurred that the agency couldn't have taken on the abrupt rise in suspected abuse without more staff.

“I’m certain these employees are buried with this," Gallion said. "They’re being constantly asked to do more with less, and now with the increase (in cases), I just look at this as a trajectory that we can’t continue. Something’s got to change.” 

Public audits in 2017 and 2019 revealed the same issue with response times at DHS, though it has grown more severe over the last two years.

Rep. Robin Weisz, a Hurdsfield Republican who chairs the House Human Services Committee, said the Legislature didn't address the slow response times when they were flagged in 2017 and 2019 because lawmakers weren't "necessarily all that cognizant of the issue."

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"The (DHS) budget is very complex, and we (legislators) are (in session) for a limited time, so we don’t always see everything that might be out there," Weisz said. "We try to allocate the resources the best we can to the needs throughout the whole agency. Sometimes, things do get missed."

Robin Weisz
North Dakota Rep. Robin Weisz, R-Hurdsfield, speaks at a press conference on Wednesday, Aug. 17, 2022, in Bismarck.
Jeremy Turley / Forum News Service

The Legislature will “have to take a hard look” during next year's session at shifting resources from another area or adding employees to ensure that suspected child abuse is investigated properly, Weisz said.

Jones said a far-reaching 2019 redesign of social services was meant to tackle the issue, but the pandemic's lockdowns threw the progress off course.

Gov. Doug Burgum said in a statement that "there is always room for improvement in the delivery of government services, and we take child safety very seriously."

"We appreciate the work of DHS and its county partners to investigate child safety cases, especially during the extraordinarily challenging circumstances of the past two years, and look forward to working with the Legislature to address the caseload issues identified in the audit," Burgum said.

The audit also found that the Department of Human Services:

  • Incorrectly paid for about $1 million in services through a state addiction treatment program that ran out of money in 2020. The funds could have been covered by Medicaid, according to auditors. DHS agreed with the finding and said it has hired a new employee to address the issue.
  • Underpaid employees at the State Hospital and Life Skills and Transition Center by a total of $132,000. DHS disagreed with auditors that the employees were underpaid.
  • Doled out $157,000 in bonuses to employees who were not eligible to receive them. DHS said the bonuses were justified for employees who spent extra time caring for patients during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Read the full audit report here:

Jeremy Turley is a Bismarck-based reporter for Forum News Service, which provides news coverage to publications owned by Forum Communications Company.
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