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Grand Forks County foster care struggles to keep up with growing numbers

A record number of children entering the Grand Forks County foster system is pushing the Family Services staff to its limit.

Last week, the number of children in the agency's custody hit 200 -- the highest Family Services supervisor Wayne Piche has seen in his 21 years with the county.

Family Services started the year with 134 kids in the system. Piche estimates it will end the year with a number 70 percent higher than this time last year.

"The numbers have never been anywhere close to this," he said. "It's really putting us in a tough situation."

The strains that come with managing that many children are aggravated by a lack of foster homes in the county.

Of the 56 homes that are licensed in the county, Piche estimates half are full and another third are not available for incoming children.

The remaining 10 or so homes have preferences on the gender or age of children they would take that limit placements. Going outside these preferences can result in a bad match between family and foster child, which most often ends with the child being moved to another home.

"The value of making a good match is so important," Family Services supervisor Traci Van Beek said. "The more homes we have to choose from, the better match we can make."

In most cases, relatives are contacted to see if they can care for the children, and about 45 percent of kids are placed with family members, according to Piche.

If relatives cannot take the children then they are placed with a foster parent. Others determined to have behavioral problems may be placed in group homes.

Unknown cause

Social services staff members say they can't pin down an exact reason for the increase in kids.

But they can say exactly what is responsible for putting a majority of children into the system.

"I can sum it up with two words," Piche said. "Alcohol and drugs."

He estimates that in 90 percent of the cases the agency receives, a caretaker abusing alcohol or drugs is the reason a child or children have been removed from a home.

Other reasons can include mental health problems, unsanitary home conditions and unruly or delinquent children.

"Alcohol and drugs exacerbate all those problems," Piche said.

While drugs and alcohol remain the top reasons for placing children in foster care, Piche and Van Beek aren't sure what's behind the increase in children.

Anecdotally, Piche said he has heard there has been an increase in drug crime prosecutions, though he doesn't know if that can be attributed to more effective enforcement efforts by police or more people using drugs.

Whatever the reason may be, it has brought 143 new children into the system this year. Piche estimates that number will grow to 170 by the end of the year.

Staff strain

The growing number children and lack of foster homes are putting a strain on the agency and its staff, according to Van Beek.

"This has pushed our social workers to the max," she added. "They're working hours far beyond 40 per week, and they still can't keep their heads above water."

Twelve case managers are responsible for the system's children. With 200 kids, that breaks down to about 17 kids per worker.

Managing their cases involves checking in to be sure medical and education appointments are being attended and, in some cases, playing catch up. Often children haven't been to see a doctor or dentist in some time or they are behind on immunizations, Van Beek said.

The social workers' jobs also may require them to go to great lengths -- literally. About one-third of the children overseen by Family Services are actually placed outside of the county.

Bringing children to relatives or group homes may require workers to drive or fly with children hundreds of miles and stay overnight in hotels. Workers also must make monthly visits to each child to check on their wellbeing.

Adding homes

Adding more foster homes to the system would help alleviate part of the agency's troubles -- though there isn't a magic number of homes to reach.

"It's hard to say what a comfortable number is," Piche said, adding that having a higher number of homes could produce better matches between foster children and families.

"We'd be happy to double or even triple our number of homes."

At this point, Van Beek and Piche say the more homes, the better.

While there is a demand for the traditional fostering that places a child with a family for months, the agency also needs people who can take kids on a short-term basis, whether that's providing emergency housing or just a break for foster families.

"Sometimes our families need a little respite," Van Beek said. "We'd like to have people who can take children just for the weekend."

People 21 and older can apply to become a licensed foster parent. Once an application has been turned in, a home study process would begin and include courses, training, inspections and a background check.

Those interested in becoming a licensed foster parent can contact Northeast Human Services at (701) 795-3000 for more information.

Call Jewett at (701) 780-1108, (800) 477-6572 ext. 1108 or send email to