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Chuck Haga, Forum Communications, Published October 16 2012

$3.5 million announced for child welfare on reservations, including Spirit Lake, Turtle Mountain

Children and pregnant women at the Spirit Lake and Turtle Mountain Indian reservations in northeastern North Dakota will receive increased home visitation services thanks to a $3.5 million federal grant announced this week.

The voluntary home visitation programs will allow nurses, social workers, mental health specialists and other professionals to visit homes of pregnant women and children under the age of 2, said Tim Hathaway, executive director of Prevent Child Abuse North Dakota.

PCAND was the lead agency in securing the federal grant, working with Lutheran Social Services of North Dakota, the Center for Social Research at North Dakota State University and the Great Plains Tribal Chairman’s Association.

The federal funding for bolstering home visitations in high-poverty areas had been made available last year through the state Health Department but was cut from the governor’s budget after some legislators objected it would commit the state to future spending.

Some Democratic-NPL legislators argued that Republican legislative leaders killed the funding because they wanted nothing to do with anything tied to the federal Affordable Health Care Act, or Obamacare. Republican leaders denied that was their motivation.

PCAND and the other organizations applied directly for the $3.5 million, which will be spread over three years.

“I’ve spoken with a number of legislators about the project,” Hathaway said today. “I think we have good support moving forward.”

In the project’s first year, the goal is to serve about 150 families, he said, “and as the project matures, we hope to have 250 families involved.”

A North Dakota Health Department assessment three years ago had identified Benson and Rolette counties, home to the Spirit Lake Sioux and Turtle Mountain Ojibwe, respectively, as areas most in need of such services.

“There are other counties in the state with significant needs, and we’d love to expand these services if additional funds are released,” Hathaway said.

Child abuse reduction

Spirit Lake has been under severe scrutiny this year following allegations of widespread problems in the tribe’s child welfare programs, some of which were taken over on Oct. 1 by the federal Bureau of Indian Affairs.

“We’ve been working with tribal health officials and the chairman’s office at Spirit Lake over several months, and they were involved in helping to prepare the grant,” Hathaway said. “They’ve been with us shoulder to shoulder.”

He said there is solid research showing that home visitation programs strengthen families and reduce early childhood abuse and neglect by as much as 50 percent.

“We know that having good, caring, qualified staff available to build strong relationships with parents makes a difference in supporting children in a community,” he said.

“We know that these specific services can improve health outcomes for mothers and children — keeping women on track with prenatal visits, keeping kids on track with immunizations, helping kids get better scores on cognitive assessments and getting dads more involved in families.”

A news conference to explain the project is scheduled Thursday in Belcourt, on the Turtle Mountain Reservation, with Hathaway and Merle St. Claire, chairman of the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa. Hathaway said he expected Chairman Roger Yankton or another Spirit Lake official to be on hand as well.

The home visitation program “is a true gift that we appreciate and value as a tribe,” St. Claire said in a prepared statement.

“I especially appreciate the focus that this program will place on our children and families to help them through the problems of living in poverty areas and the day-to-day struggles they may be enduring.”

Building connections

Hathaway said the home visitation program also will help families with referrals to other social service providers, such as connecting pregnant women with physicians for prenatal care or providing contacts for special education, job training or help with substance abuse or depression.

He said the program will be available to tribal members who become pregnant or have a child on the reservation but leave for college or work.

“This is one of the challenges those two communities shared with us, so we’ve built the program to follow those families and provide services in Bismarck or Fargo or Grand Forks or Devils Lake, wherever they are,” Hathaway said. “We want to stick with those families. We don’t want to lose them.”