BEMIDJI-For years, Beltrami County has endured a storm of rising numbers in the out-of-home placement system along with facing challenging financial outcomes.

And while the tempest hasn't quite passed, light is starting to break through.

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For the first time since 2012, the county saw a decrease in the number of children in the county's foster care system in 2018, reaching its lowest count since 2015.

In 2018, the number of children in out-of-home placement was 1,158, down from 1,262 in 2017 and 1,172 in 2016.

"It's too early to say we've turned a corner, but we've had five straight quarters where we've seen a decline," said Jeffrey Lind, county Social Services Division director. "We hope the trend continues, although it's never a guarantee."

In 2009, the number of children in out-of-home placement was 464. It then started a steady trend upward-in 2010 there were 497 children in the system, then to 640 in 2011. There was a dip in 2012 down to 631, before a continuing increase until 2018.

And that increase, largely driven by rising substance abuse, resulted in financial strains for the county. By year-end 2017, the total expense for out-of-home placement at the county was $11.9 million.

For that amount, the county Health and Human Services Department used $4.1 million from the property tax levy and $4.75 million from state, federal and third party sources. However, the county had to draw from $3 million from its general fund to meet the shortfall.

During a county Board of Commissioners meeting a few weeks ago, officials were informed about the potential for the general fund balance to potentially go negative in either 2022 or 2023. The analysis was based on predictions of out-of-home placements continuing to rise.

However, at a board meeting Tuesday, Health and Human Services informed commissioners the number of placements are finally starting to decrease for the first time in years. Health and Human Services Director Becky Secore told the Pioneer a multitude of programs and effort from all involved helped in the decrease.

"There's no simple scientific answer, where we can point to one thing. It takes everything, together," Secore said. "We've had programs like the First Steps to Healthy Babies program with Sanford Health, and I think we've had a lot more education regarding issues like opioid addiction. Plus there's been more access to treatment for it, like medical assisted treatment."

"We've been working on more programming that has come to fruition," Lind said. "I think we have more alcohol and drug programs available in the area and those make a difference. We've also hired an adoption worker who specializes in moving these children through the programs more efficiently."

Legislature comes through

Tuesday's announcement was a step in the right direction, but more work is needed, Lind said.

This is where the Legislature has stepped in. Along with a decline in the number of children in placement, the 2019 session resulted in $3 million in financial relief for the county and authorization for the Red Lake Nation to begin its own, independent out-of-home placement program in 2021.

"It's a lot of years working on something that's finally happening," Secore said. "Personally, it is something to celebrate. Not only for the financial part, but because the numbers are showing more kids are staying in their homes. That's the biggest priority to me. If we can keep kids safe and in their homes, then we're doing what we're supposed to be doing."

According to Secore, the $3 million was approved through the 2019 tax bill, with the funding available for 2019 and 2020. The Health and Human Services Department omnibus bill, meanwhile, made way for the Red Lake foster care initiative to start.

The Red Lake Nation government operates foster care services today, but the county remains financially responsible, reimbursing the tribe for out-of-home placement costs. When the initiative becomes operational, the Red Lake out-of-home placement system will become independent from the county, with the tribe working directly with state and federal entities for funding.

"What's happening is historic," Secore said. "It's historic in the fact that we're working together to improve the lives of children both on and off the reservation. I'm hoping this happening takes that up another step, where we continue working together and this trend where the numbers go down."

Similar programs to the future Red Lake initiative have already been implemented in the Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe and the White Earth Nation. According to District 5A Rep. John Persell, DFL-Bemidji, they provide a good model for when Red Lake starts its own in 2021.

"White Earth and Leech Lake have done some really innovative stuff, so expanding that to Red Lake makes a lot of sense, particularly with Beltrami County being in the mix. Red Lake is doing good work now, but they need resources," Persell said. "I feel this is the brightest bulb on the tree for me from this session. I'm just proud to be part of this thing and I'm looking forward to seeing the Red Lake initiative move through, as well as Mille Lacs (Band of Ojibwe)."

Attempts to reach Red Lake child services officials were unsuccessful.