FARGO — Child welfare workers in North Dakota are concerned that children are being removed from their homes for their own safety and placed in hotels because emergency foster families are not readily available.
At times, social services staff had to spend the night or the weekend in their office with the children, according to child protection officials. A recent report received by a legislative committee studying gaps in mental health services said a child was sent to State Hospital, an adult facility in Jamestown, due to a lack of foster parents .
The reports are concerning, said Lynn Flieth, social services area director for Richland, Sargent and Ransom counties in southeastern North Dakota. Hotels and government buildings are not designed to accommodate children, and they don’t give children a sense of belonging, Flieth said.
“All of us in child protection strongly believe that children live best in their most natural, least restrictive setting…preferably in their own homes, preferably with their families,” he said. she told the Forum.
The state does not track the number of times children had to be placed in hotels or spent the night in a social services office. And state officials have not confirmed the account of the child staying at the state hospital, citing privacy laws that protect children’s identities.
Emergency placement needs in North Dakota aren’t new, said Cory Pederson, director of the state Department of Human Services’ division of child and family services. These needs have existed since he started his career in 1995, he said.
But the coronavirus pandemic created a perfect storm that exacerbated the problem, according to Kim Jacobson, area director of social services in Traill and Steele counties. Fewer would-be foster parents stepped up, emergency beds in institutions filled up, and there was a greater need for those who could care for children with mental illness, developmental disabilities and issues. behavioral health issues, child protection officials said said.
“People were changing jobs,” Jacobson said. “People were maybe a little more afraid of having unfamiliar children in their homes.”
North Dakota isn’t alone in dealing with these issues, according to Marie Zemler Wu, executive director of Foster America, a nonprofit group that advocates for children in foster care.
Similar reports came out of Texas, Washington and Georgia. Virginia recently created a task force after 163 children spent at least one night in hotels, emergency rooms or government offices due to a shortage of foster homes over a six-month period in 2021, according to a
Reports of children staying in hotels and government offices in North Dakota have sparked conversations about finding solutions for children who need a safe place to live while a long-term family is sought for them.
Some suggestions include more emergency foster care certification and licensing options for community members and child care providers, incentives to retain skilled workers, developing a network of specialized foster homes, needs assessments in shelters and increased salaries for direct care staff who serve at-risk populations.
“I think it gives us hope,” Jacobson said of identifying system needs in order to find solutions.
Pederson called for more preventative services that would prevent children from needing the foster care system at all. In the long term, everyone should be focused on improving the child welfare system as a whole by creating stronger families.
“I challenge us to think about how, as communities, we play a significant role in this,” Pederson said at last month’s meeting of the North Dakota Children’s Cabinet, a government agency formed in 2019 which examines the care of children across the state. .
The key is to do systemic work to prevent a crisis, Zemler Wu said.
“How do you build a resilient system that has what it needs for children and families so that you don’t reach that terrible point where you pull a child out of their home and then put them to sleep in an office or in a hotel or having to stay in a hospital setting where they don’t belong?” she asked.
The North Dakota Department of Social Services estimates that approximately 1,500 children are in the foster care system at any given time. By the end of March, North Dakota had 1,036 foster families, the agency said.
Emergency placements have declined in North Dakota in recent years, from 1,014 in 2017 to 744 in 2021, according to the Department of Human Services.
Minnesota’s emergency placements also increased from 4,430 in 2017 to 2,732 in 2021, according to the state Department of Social Services. At least 22 children were “awaiting placement” at one point last year, which could include being sent to a hotel or spending the night in a government office, state officials said. .
In North Dakota, state lawmakers and social service workers are taking steps to improve the system, Pederson and others said.
North Dakota is focusing on placing children who need foster care with other family members when parents can’t care for them, Pederson said. This includes grandparents, aunts and uncles.
The state is also looking for ways to get children out of the foster care system and back to their parents more quickly, if possible, he said.
In 2019, North Dakota became one of the first states to implement the Family First Prevention Services Act of 2018, a federal law aimed at keeping children with families and reducing foster care placements.
Minnesota, which also implemented the law last year, must consider a relative for placement, according to state law.
Having a kinship program is key to keeping a foster care system in order, Zemler Wu said. The federal government has made efforts to encourage states to send at least 50% of foster children, who are forced to leave their homes. , to other family members, she said.
Going to another family is the least traumatic experience for children because they already feel a sense of connection and trust in the people they go to, she added.
“Stable Bonds with Loving Adults”
North Dakota has made progress in improving its foster care system, particularly with respect to emergency placement, Pederson said. Five years ago, North Dakota sent 85 children out of state into foster care. Now only one child is in an out-of-state facility, he said.
The state announced in February that it would accept applications from entities requesting a total of $1.5 million to create more temporary shelter space, with each site allowed to get up to $150,000. At least six candidates have submitted proposals, Pederson said.
North Dakota has youth shelters in Fargo, Grand Forks, Bismarck, Minot, Dickinson, and Williston.
North Dakota is also working to provide more beds for mental illness and behavioral health treatment for children, Pederson said. “We are always looking for solutions to keep children safe,” he said.
Research has suggested states are moving away from congregational settings, Zemler Wu said. Such settings should be reserved for rare and temporary “specific therapeutic needs,” she added.
In North Dakota, social service staff want to keep children closer to home, school and neighbors, Jacobson said.
“You can’t just store kids in facilities forever,” Pederson said.
Being part of a stable family is so basic and fundamental that it’s sometimes hard to imagine or say why it’s so important, Zemler Wu said.
“Of course, the place of children, in our opinion, is in families. And all the research tells us the same thing, that it’s stable ties to loving adults that predict how well we do throughout our lives,” she said.
For more information about foster care services in North Dakota, including qualifications to become a foster parent, go to
or call the state Department of Social Services at 701-328-2316 or 800-245-3736.