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North Dakota ranks third in the country when it comes to juvenile drug arrests

Drug abuse by children usually rooted in behavioral health issues, but there are few services geared at youth, experts say

PHOTO: Drug Kids.jpg
North Dakota had the third highest rate of juvenile drug arrests in 2017, according to research by the Greenhouse Treatment Center in Texas. That was behind South Dakota and Wyoming. Minnesota ranked 17th.

A recent study revealed juvenile drug arrest rates in North Dakota are among the highest in the country, and federal numbers show those numbers have increased over the last decade, according to a Forum analysis.

Services aimed at prevention and recovery have been limited for children in North Dakota, but behavioral health experts said they have seen a shift in thinking. That has sparked a movement toward policy-making to help children before they end up before a judge.

North Dakota had the third highest rate of juvenile drug arrests in 2017, reporting almost 27 violations per 10,000 children, according to research by the Greenhouse Treatment Center in Texas. That was behind South Dakota (46 per 10,000) and Wyoming (35 per 10,000), according to the study. Minnesota ranked 17th, with a rate of about 14 drug arrests per 10,000 children.

Overall, North Dakota ranked low for total numbers with only 476 arrests in 2017, according to the FBI Uniform Crime Reporting system, from which Greenhouse pulled its information. The Forum reviewed a decade of North Dakota juvenile arrest statistics and found arrests increased 70 percent from 2008, which had 278 juvenile drug violations, to 2017, the latest data available from UCR.

Drug abuse in children often is the result of a behavioral health issue instead of a criminal issue, said Pam Sagness, behavioral health division director for the North Dakota Human Services Department. But there are few behavioral health services in the state for children, leaving the juvenile court system to fill the gaps, she said.


Stakeholders noted in a 2018 behavioral health system study that “youth services are often ‘swallowed up’ by a systems emphasis on adult services.”

Sagness’ division has pushed this legislative session for solutions to preventing juvenile drug abuse before they end up in the court system.

“We’ve been evaluating and doing justice reinvestment for adults, but we haven’t done that for kids,” Sagness said.

Waiting for law enforcement

Reported drug crime in North Dakota overall has been on the rise in the last decade — 2008 had 1,769 violations in the category, which more than tripled to 5,646 in 2017, according to The Forum analysis.

The FBI defines a violation as “one arrest for each separate instance in which a person is arrested, cited or summoned for an offense,” but the program doesn’t collect data from incidents in which police simply contact a child who has not committed a crime, according to the UCR website.

Rates for child drug violations also have increased over the last 10 years, according to a Forum analysis of UCR juvenile drug arrests versus U.S. Census estimates of residents under the age of 18. North Dakota’s rate of juvenile drug violations was nearly 19 per 10,000 juveniles in 2008.


North Dakota tracks juvenile court referrals, which can come from police, schools, parents and other sources. Drug-related referrals have declined slightly from 1,112 cases in 2014 to 1,040 last year, according to the state juvenile court system.

Cass County juvenile referrals have stayed mostly steady in the last five years, according to the data obtained from Karen Kringlie, director of juvenile court services for the East Central and Southeast judicial districts. Her staff is concerned with increased juvenile use of hard drugs, including meth, cocaine and opiates, in recent years.

“Kids commit delinquent offenses for different reasons, but yes, we do see youth who choose to use drugs or alcohol as a means to cope with life stressors or to self-medicate an underlying mental health issue,” she said. “Youth are naturally impulsive and more influenced by their peers than adults.”


Accessing behavioral health services without being involved in the justice system is ideal, Kringlie said. The juvenile court system is a connector to behavioral health services, not the deliverer of those resources, she said.
“Families do have the ability to access these services but we are finding that they do not,” she said. “Many of them wait until law enforcement is called and juvenile court receives a referral before a referral to services is done.”

Sagness was concerned with the rising arrests numbers, especially because North Dakota rates for youth using substances are all below the national average, with the exception of alcohol, she said as she cited youth risk behavior surveys.

The UCR numbers could be repetitive in the sense one person may be arrested multiple times, Lisa Jahner, initiative coordinator and director of research and programs for the North Dakota Association of Counties.

“I do think that these kids who are using use extensively and … there is not just one violation,” she said. “There’s probably many violations among the same youth.”


‘Good neighbors, not good prisoners’

North Dakota does not have an adequate behavioral health system to help address the needs of substance abuse in children, though leaders have been working in recent years to fix that, Sagness said.

Like the rest of the country, North Dakotans with substance abuse disorders access treatment at a lower rate than those who are diagnosed with an abuse program, according to the behavioral health study. Sagness and the report noted a lack of treatment in rural areas.

“Even in urban areas, we don’t necessarily have the services that can meet the need, often with youth,” she said.

There are pockets of services offered by local entities for drug abuse among children, Jahner said, but she was unaware of any statewide services.

The Fargo Police Department’s Narcotics Unit Supervisor rarely deals with juvenile offenders, said Jessica Schindeldecker, the agency’s crime prevention and public information officer. The department was the first in the state to train all of its officers in an attempt to better understand youth behavior and how best to interact with them, according to a Facebook post referenced by Schindeldecker.

The department also wants children to get the education and resources they need to keep them out of the juvenile system, according to the post.

More work needs to be done, including providing community-based services, meeting needs for children at an earlier age and providing services from prevention to recovery, Sagness said.

North Dakota has become more accepting of building “good neighbors, not good prisoners” because education efforts have helped them realize providing access to services is more effective than incarceration, she said.


“These people are citizens, and they’re going to come out and be our neighbors or in our communities,” Jahner said.

April Baumgarten joined The Forum in February 2019 as an investigative reporter. She grew up on a ranch 10 miles southeast of Belfield, N.D., where her family raises Hereford cattle. She double majored in communications and history/political science at the University of Jamestown, N.D.
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