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Forum Editorial: North Dakota can’t keep failing to promptly check on children suspected of abuse

A recent audit is the third -- earlier audits in 2017 and 2019 also raised red flags -- documenting human service officials' failure to meet its own deadlines to check on the safety of children suspected of abuse or neglect. This warning shouldn't be ignored.

Editorial FSA
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The latest audit finding that the North Dakota Department of Human Services has for years failed to meet its own deadline requirements for checking up on children suspected of abuse or neglect is sober reading.

It should be ringing alarm bells in the state Capitol in Bismarck, where earlier warning signs have been ignored.

The failure to promptly look in on children suspected of mistreatment, unfortunately, isn’t a new problem. It’s been going on for years, first documented in an audit in 2017 and again in an audit in 2019.

Despite those earlier red flags, the problem was allowed to continue and to get worse — much, much worse — when the COVID-19 pandemic raged.

For good reasons, Department of Human Services policy requires social service employees, law enforcement, court staff or medical professionals to meet with children after a report of possible abuse or neglect has been filed.

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Depending on the severity of the alleged abuse or neglect, these checks should be made anywhere from within one day to 14 days. In the latest review, auditors examined 60 cases and found that in 68% of cases human services officials failed to check in on the child in time.

Mistreatment can include welts or cuts, educational neglect, illegal substance use during pregnancy or in front of children, sexual abuse or children who are suicidal.

Children who could face impending danger are supposed to be checked on within three days. Too often, that hasn’t happened.

In 2019, before the pandemic, auditors found more than 350 cases of failure to respond within three days to reports of identified impending danger to children — a number that jumped to more than 1,200 in 2021, during the pandemic.

In cases deemed most severe, where a check should occur within 24 hours, the agency averaged a 13-day response.

Here is where officials will say, correctly, that even one abused child is too many.

That’s reassuring rhetoric, but the years this problem has been allowed to fester and grow worse make clear they haven’t taken to heart the consequences of failing to address this chronic failure.

That failure to act is widely shared. It has occurred through a series of administrations, and implicates not only the Department of Human Services but the legislators who are supposed to adequately fund and oversee these programs.

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Human Services Director Chris Jones said most cases that are investigated turn out not to involve child abuse, but concedes the gravity of the allegations requires prompt examination. He said the problem of failing to promptly check into reports has grown exponentially worse during the pandemic, as his agency has had to grapple with “extreme staff turnover.”

Increased workloads and lack of adequate pay raises has made it more difficult to keep social workers, he said.

Jones’ department will seek more staffing and Gov. Doug Burgum has said he looks forward to working with legislators to “address the caseload issue identified in the audit.” A key legislator, Rep. Robin Weisz, R-Hurdsfield, chairman of the House Human Services Committee, said legislators failed to take action after the 2017 and 2019 audits because they weren’t “necessarily all that cognizant of the issue.”

He said the human services budget is large and complex, and it is both — but, honestly, can’t legislators read an audit?

Solving the deep-rooted problem of child abuse and neglect is “generational” and “multidimensional,” Jones said, adding that a lack of affordable day care can place struggling parents in the dilemma of neglecting their children by going to work.

Undoubtedly, more parental support will be an important part of the solution. Officials can’t allow this problem to continue to worsen. This should be a top-level priority when the North Dakota Legislature convenes in January.

We can’t keep muddling along when child safety is at stake.

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