Courts - North Dakota Officials aim to restructure foster care system Effort could save taxpayers money in the long run

By Andi Murphy

The Forum

FARGO, N.D. (AP) -- North Dakota is at the forefront of a new trend in the way foster care is administered: Don't put children in foster care.

The idea is to help families help themselves so they can keep their children, rather than having a judge order them into the foster care system.

When children stay with their families, they typically do better in school, and the odds of them aging out of the foster care system and struggling with adult life free of the assistance they received before are diminished, said Gary Wolsky, president and CEO of The Village Family Service Center in Fargo.

"The problems get costlier to fix if left untended," Wolsky said. "Prevention is always cheaper."

The effort could save taxpayers a bundle because it's more expensive to put a child through foster care than it is to help the whole family, Wolsky said.

The family preservation initiative has also grabbed the attention of some North Dakota lawmakers, who say they hope to see the idea take off in the state.

"In the long run, I think it will cost us less money," said Sen. Judy Lee, R-West Fargo.

Lee is chairwoman of the Legislature's Human Services Committee and sponsored a bill in 2009 to secure more money for prevention and early intervention family programs.

Lee thinks keeping children with their families is better for the child. It keeps them in the same schools and communities, and is less stressful than placing them with strangers, she said.

Though Lee isn't taking a firm stance on the initiative for the next legislative session beginning in January, she thinks there could be a chance for cases to come forward that would make way for additional changes to foster care.

Wolsky and others with The Village are acting as advocates for the state social services departments and are asking for a shift in funds from foster care to family preservation programs, along with a new child welfare philosophy.

North Dakota lawmakers have had an eye on early family intervention since 2006, when a pilot family empowerment program the Family Group Decision Making Program was started.

Before such programs existed, the number of children in North Dakota's foster care system was on the rise. Now it's on the decline, going from a high of 2,314 children in 2005 to 2,106 in 2009, according to a recent snapshot of child welfare data by the state Department of Human Services.

Tara Muhlhauser, director of the Human Services Department, couldn't say if the new trend in family care caused the recent decline in foster children numbers. But she hopes that's the case and that it will continue.

Muhlhauser also attributes some of the decline to the national Adoption and Safe Families Act of 1997.

This puts an emphasis on child safety, permanency, and placing foster children in adoption as soon as necessary, which may include terminating parental rights of biological parents. There are still times when, for a variety of reasons and despite additional help, parents are not able to adequately care for a child.

Nationally, about 463,000 children were in foster care on Sept. 30, 2008, the most recent statistics available.

That's a 16 percent decrease from 2000 when there were 552,000 children in foster care, according to the Adoption and Foster Care Analysis and Reporting System report.

Of those children, 47 percent were placed in non-relative care, 24 percent were placed with family and 10 percent were placed in institutions.

In North Dakota, about 18 percent of children returned to their parents from foster care are back in the foster care system within a year. About 36 percent of children in foster care are placed in three different homes. Foster kids also score 20 percent lower on standardized tests, according to data by The Village.

"You start bouncing kids around from place to place, you could almost say we're part of the problem than part of the solution," Wolsky said.

The best chance to avoid a troubled, homeless 18-year-old is for service programs to act while the individual is legally still a child, he added.

For 18-year-olds who are released from the foster care system, life can be tough, and they sometimes find themselves on the streets looking for their biological parents. These young adults have far fewer service and aide programs to take advantage of than children do, Wolsky said.

It costs an estimated $3,000 to $4,000 for one family to participate in family preservation programs. This method tends to cost less over the long term because foster children usually spend an average of a year in foster care, said Sandi Zaleski, who works for The Village and is the director for these programs.

On the flip side, a foster family with a 10-year-old could get up to $752 a month, which adds up to $9,024 a year, not including other expenses.

In 2008, North Dakota legislators increased the state's foster care rates to be on par with the Minimum Adequate Rates for Children report, a national report showing the costs of raising a foster child.

At any given time, there are more than 1,000 foster children in various foster programs in North Dakota. Depending on the kind of foster care a child receives, regular foster families can receive up to $825 a month for children 13 and older, and $656 a month for children younger than 5. Both are $290 more than what the rates were before 2008, Muhlhauser said.

In Minnesota, basic foster rates range from $647 a month for regular foster care to $337 for both adoption assistance and kinship care. These rates do not include payment rates for children with physical, emotional and mental problems, which can bump rates up to $1,100 a month for regular foster care and $500 for both adoption assistance and kinship care, according to the Minnesota Department of Human Services' benefit comparison chart.

Minnesota revamped its child welfare system five years before North Dakota started making strides, and the state shows a 30 percent decrease in the foster children population.

In 2000, Minnesota had about 16,967 children in out-of-home foster care 5,286 less than in 2009, when there were 11,699 kids in out-of-home foster care, according to the state's child welfare report.

Minnesota implemented a pilot project in 2000 called Alternative Response, which was originally an alternative program to help families get the help they needed from welfare programs and find programs they were eligible for.

The program operated in 20 counties, and over a four-year period it demonstrated that children are safer when programs responded to their families first, said Erin Sullivan-Sutton, assistant commissioner for Minnesota Children and Family Services.

"We didn't go into this with the notion to save money in foster care" or with foster care in mind, Sullivan-Sutton said.

After the program was done in 2005, Minnesota legislators allotted money to all 87 counties to continue what had been started.

Published: Mon, Sep 6, 2010


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