By Tilden Bird
The Three Affiliated Tribes Social Services, under new director Katherine Felix, is helping children across Fort Berthold when their immediate families cannot. The program faces many challenges, such as a small staff, budgetary constraints, and a shortage of foster homes, yet continues to protect more than 90 of Fort Berthold’s children.
Currently Social Services has two staff openings, forcing the remaining staff to stretch their talents and time between more than twice the amount of foster children than the national average.
With the coming of the oil boom and increase in population, reports of child abuse in the last year have neither increased nor decreased. However, the number of non-enrolled members involved in cases and removals has increased. Off reservation, the number of cases seems to have increased.
“When I first started working at McKenzie County before I came back in 2009 it was like 25, maybe 40 at the most,” said Deborah Young Bear, child protection assessment specialist. “The highest in about five years. And then it jumped to 100, 200, and it just kept going up.”
It is believed that many of the new cases are due to outsiders travelling to the Bakken Region in search of jobs. Many come to the area in hopes that a family member or friend is willing to help them financially but are unable to find jobs or housing. In cases like these, Social Services has helped families return home.
Though much of the increase in child protection cases has been due to newcomers to west and central North Dakota, there are still homegrown cases.
“When I came to work here in April 2010, we were at about between 50 and 60 foster children in care,” said Paula Snow, clinical supervisor for child protection in the foster care program. “Last year we peaked at 100. It was just barely over 100. So what we need to do is get those children home, do a case plan with their parents to resolve the issues going on, or these children have to be adopted or have legal guardians appointed. It’s illegal to have a child grow up in long-term foster care.”
Another challenge faced by Social Services is the removal of newborns from the hospital at birth due to drugs in their system. Following a longer-than-average stay at the hospital due to withdrawal symptoms, each employee has picked up an infant from the hospital and returned to Fort Berthold to place the child in foster care. Though this has become a frequent occurrence, it is not a certainty.
“It depends on the support system, the first time, second time, whether or not both parents in the home are using or not. There might be one sober parent in the house,” said Young Bear.
Addicted mothers have also been allowed to take their children with them from the hospital straight to treatment so the bonding phase between mother and child would not be interrupted.
A fairly new option now being utilized by Social Services is Parental Suspension, which temporarily terminates a parent’s rights while they are in the process of recovery. This option was only recently passed in mid-2015 and has currently only been used in one case.
“Before if a child did not go home, their options were legal guardianship, termination of parental rights which is permanent and irreversible and [would] wipe out all the relatives, everything,” said Snow. “We only have one in between, which is the permanent suspension of parental rights, which was passed.”
Perhaps the largest obstacle faced by Social Services is the lack of foster homes in the area. Children are generally placed with family, however closely related family members are sometimes located states away. Occasionally enrolled children have been placed in the care of non-enrolled families due to the lack of Native American foster parents.
“We need foster homes. We always need foster homes. We’re limited. The state’s limited [on] culturally- appropriate foster homes sometimes,” said Young Bear.
In order to become a foster parent, enrolled members would apply with the Three Affiliated Tribes Social Services. Individuals who are not enrolled with the MHA Nation would apply to be a foster parent within their county.
In order to provide the safest possible home for foster children, Social Services requires and provides multiple trainings for foster parents. Such trainings include fire safety training, CPR, first aid, and basic foster parent instruction.
“We can do that with you while you’re licensed as well so you don’t have to have it all done,” stated Snow.
In addition to needing more foster homes in the area, Social Services also appreciates donations.
“You can donate stuff. We sort through some of it, we put some of it out to the parents or the foster parents or the foster kids,” said Young Bear.
The MHA Times will be collaborating with Social Services on a donation drive. Items generally needed are suitcases, backpacks, toiletries, and blankets. Infants require diapers and wipes, though baby formula is somewhat discouraged because a large amount has the potential to expire. Items can be dropped off at either the MHA Times building, or at the Social Services building near the MHA Tribal Headquarters.