On any given day, around 1,500 children are in the foster care system in North Dakota. Across the country there are almost 438,000 children in foster care and the numbers are continuing to rise, according to the Children's Rights organization.
A recent national study confirmed that substance abuse among parents has led to rising foster care caseloads, but there are many factors for why a child ends up in the foster care system, experts say.
"Increased levels of substance abuse, including but not limited to opioids, have devastated many American families, and the child welfare system has felt the effects," the report by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services concluded.
In North Dakota, the number of children entering foster care has gone up over the last five years, according to data from the North Dakota Department of Human Services.
In 2013, just over 2,000 children were in the foster care system at some point during the fiscal year. By 2017 that number rose to more than 2,500 children.
In 2016, there were just over 1,000 new entries into the foster care system in North Dakota, just over 450 over those cases were due to parental substance abuse, which includes alcohol and drug use.
While North Dakota does not break down the specifics of parental substance abuse, Dean Sturn, foster care administrator in North Dakota, said the ongoing opioid crisis could have an impact on the number of children in the system. In the past the foster care system saw a spike due to meth and crack cocaine usage, among other drugs, he said.
"It's hard to put your finger on any one single drug, but it seems like the popular mindset in the country is it could be the opioid epidemic. But we don't know exactly how much of a part of it that it is," he said.
According to an April 2018 report from the Minnesota Department of Human Services, about 16,600 children and young adults experienced "out-of-home care" at some point in 2017. On an average day, there were approximately 9,900 children and young adults in care.
During 2017, almost 7,500 children and young adults entered out-of-home placement in Minnesota for a number of reasons, including parental drug abuse, allegations of neglect and allegations of physical abuse.
The report states that, due to the recent rise in opioid and methamphetamine addiction, the removal of children from homes for parental drug abuse increased from 17 percent of all new placements in 2013 to 29 percent of all new placements in 2017. As of 2016, parental drug abuse has become the most frequently identified primary reason for children to be placed in out-of-home care.
Being a foster parent
If a child is unable to stay with immediate family, Sturn said they want the child to be able to stay with other relatives, such as aunts, uncles or grandparents. If that is still not possible then the next step would be for the child to be placed in "formal" foster care with a different family. However, the ultimate goal is for children to be reunited with their parents, he said.
Deb Inocencio has had her foster care license for about a year and half. Inocencio, who has a 13-year-old daughter, decided to become a foster parent because she wanted to be able to have more kids. While she had thought about adoption, she felt a pull to go into foster care instead.
"I'm pretty strong in my faith, and I just felt that God was calling me to do something like foster care," she said.
After meeting with someone from a foster care program, she went through all of the proper training and licencing that is required to be a foster parent. Inocencio has had two long-term placements, including a 2-year-old girl who has been staying with her for about a month. Additionally she has served as a respite care provider for a number of children. Respite families provide short-term care-a few nights at a time-for a child.
Being a foster parent is "very challenging," Inocencio said, noting that all children are different and comes with their own set of experiences and potential trauma that they've been through. But there is no single "hardest part" about being a foster parent, she said. The child could be dealing with trauma from physical abuse, sexual abuse or a learning disability, she said.
"I think ultimately to let them go at the end (is hard), sometimes it's bittersweet because they get to be reunited but you also connect with these kids and you're kind of sad to see them go and you might not see them again," she said.
Before taking a placement, Inocencio makes sure she has an understanding about what the child's needs are and other things about them so it can be as comfortable of an experience as possible.
Being a foster parent also teaches her daughter about the experiences of other kids, who may not be as fortunate as she is, she said.
Inocencio said she had many conversations with her daughter before committing to be a foster parent to make sure that she was comfortable with the situation.
If others are considering becoming foster parents, Inocencio said she would encourage people to learn more about the process and talk with people who they may know who are foster parents already.
Foster parents are required to be at least 21 years old, financially stable and to own or rent a home or apartment, in addition to other qualifications.
If people are interested in becoming foster parents they can contact their local county social services, Lutheran Social Services office or area PATH office. PATH is a private non-profit child and family services agency.
While the number of children in foster care has been on the rise in North Dakota, the number of licensed foster homes has also been increasing. At the end of 2013, there were 693 licensed foster families in the state, that number currently stands 1,016 homes, which is an "all-time high," according to Sturn.
"We are always looking for families who are willing to open their homes and their hearts to help children in need," he said. "I'm never comfortable to say 'OK, stop trying we have enough.'"
Pete Tunseth, director of Children and Family Services Training Center at UND, said while there's always going to be a child in need of services and protection for a variety of reasons, one area that the system could always improve in is providing support to families, so they don't end up in these situations to begin with.
"I think there's been a lot of attention in North Dakota and around the country about the need for foster care for kids. ... What we haven't really done a great job of is putting the message that families need support," Tunseth said.
Tunseth said that in many situations if support is able to be provided to parents, and therefore keeping their kids, the children are more likely to be more successful.
Support can vary from teaching parents more about child development to learning how to discipline children in a better way or in some cases how to get help if they have a substance abuse problem.
Beyond the formal, educational support, families also need informal support from friends and family, Tunseth said. He noted that by the time child services is involved with a situation the parent has likely made decisions that may have pushed their friends and family members away, so it may be challenging to re-engage those natural supporters.