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Patrick Springer, Published February 28 2012

Spirit Lake Tribe to correct deficiencies in foster care program

BISMARCK – State human services officials have given the Spirit Lake Tribe until the end of March to correct deficiencies found in the administration of foster care.

The tribe has agreed to correct deficiencies found in its administration of 36 foster children whose care is paid for by a program under an agreement with the Department of Human Services.

A follow-up review will take place when the deadline is reached to ensure corrective steps have been taken, said Tara Muhlhauser, North Dakota’s children and family services director.

“We will be tracking compliance,” she said.

Case plans for the children either didn’t exist, were incomplete or were not up to date, a state review in January found.

The state review also documented deficiencies in court orders involving placement of children into foster care, lack of procedural safeguards, and inadequate health and education records for the foster children.

A state review team inspected the tribe’s foster care case files Jan. 17-20 after it became aware of similar deficiencies flagged in a yearly review by the Bureau of Indian Affairs of the tribe’s social services programs.

Funding for the foster care program is split, with some children’s needs paid by the BIA and others paid by money passed through the state to provide financial support for the foster homes.

In both cases, the Spirit Lake Tribe has jurisdiction for the foster care of children from the reservation, Muhlhauser said.

No children can be placed in foster care without a court order, and after determining that placement is in the child’s best interest, for reasons of health, safety or well-being.

“We were concerned about placement of foster kids,” Muhlhauser said.

Initially, state human services officials gave the Spirit Lake Tribe a 30-day deadline to take corrective action. But the state agreed to a 15-day extension at the request of Roger Yankton, tribal chairman.

The tribe’s two foster care case managers work with 78 children, giving each a caseload of 39 children.

“The extremely high caseloads provide limited time for these workers to address compliance issues,” Yankton wrote the state in a letter recently.

“Secondly, the sheer number of deficiencies for each of these cases reviewed requires many man hours for corrections to be completed,” Yankton said in his letter pleading for more time.

The Forum’s calls seeking comment left with Yankton’s office were not returned so it was unclear what corrective actions, if any, the agency has taken.

Under an agreement Yankton signed with the state, during the 45-day corrective period the tribe will have to provide maintenance payments to take care of the 36 foster children’s needs.

The state will not pass along that money for the period because the tribe failed to meet its obligations due to the case management deficiencies, Muhlhauser said.

Last year, payments to support the 36 foster children totaled $633,000, but it is not possible to estimate the amount that will be withheld during the corrective period, she said.

The tribe will not be able to recoup the money for the period. At the end of the corrective period, if the tribe meets all of the conditions, funding will resume.

The tribe also cannot collect funds for administering the program during that period. Those payments totaled $59,359 last year, according to state figures.

Among the conditions the tribe must meet under the agreement to restore compliance:

E Case managers must meet with each child face-to-face to assess safety, appropriateness of placement, and to assure the child’s needs are being met. Proper documentation must be placed in the child’s file.

E The tribe must develop a program improvement plan to address deficiencies in the foster care program’s “on-going documentation and case management activities.” Activity must start during the corrective period, but the tribe will have a year to carry out the plan.

E The tribe must determine a plan, with firm timelines, to address a backlog in adoption cases, which involve five of the 36 foster cases, awaiting legal proceedings. The delays stretch back from 16 to 19 months.

State human services officials did not ask Spirit Lake Tribe how it will come up with the money to maintain financial support for food, clothing, transportation and other needs of the foster children, Muhlhauser said.

“That is not a question we asked the tribe, but we made it very clear that is the tribe’s responsibility,” she said.

Asked whether the foster children could, in effect, be penalized in any way by the state’s withdrawal of funds during the corrective period, Muhlhauser said: “Not at all. We don’t really think of it as a penalty at all.”

She added: “If the providers aren’t paid the agreement is violated. So safety of the children came first.”

Also, she said, foster parents have information to contact the state, and regional human services officials in Devils Lake, located near Fort Totten, the headquarters of Spirit Lake Tribe, will be reviewing compliance with the tribe.

Foster parents are also involved in team meetings to review the child’s care. “We would expect that it would come to the table at those meetings,” she said.

“So we’re really going to have multiple ways of knowing what’s happening with these cases and these kids,” Muhlhauser added.

Readers can reach Forum reporter Patrick Springer at (701) 241-5522