BEMIDJI -- A group of organizations, government agencies and officials gathered virtually on Thursday to review positive progress related to foster care and substance abuse.

The group, Northern Access, consists of several local chemical health and mental health programs, as well as agencies such as Beltrami County, the Minnesota Department of Corrections, and the provider Sanford Health. Additionally, the group includes programs from the Red Lake Nation, White Earth Nation and Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe.

Many members of Northern Access have been hard at work in the last several years, responding to the opioid epidemic which coincided with rising numbers of children in out of home placement.

In Beltrami County, the number of children in foster care reached a peak in 2017 with 1,262. The number had steadily increased from 497 in 2010, to 631 in 2012, to 919 in 2014 and 1,172 in 2016.

As the numbers rose, the situation put a heavy strain on the county’s finances, to the point where state assistance was needed.

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While the number of children in foster care was increasing, so was the issue of opioid and heroin use, along with a rise in methamphetamine use. From 2000-2015, Beltrami County had 21 opioid overdose related deaths, while Cass County had 27, Hubbard County had six and Clearwater County had two.

In the state as a whole, Minnesota had 713 opioid-related deaths from 2000-2007, and 1,560 from 2008-2015.

One of the most noticeable connections between substance abuse and out of home placement was neonatal abstinence syndrome, which is the sudden discontinuation of fetal exposure to substances used by the mother during pregnancy. As a result, infants were being born with withdrawal symptoms.

In response, members of Northern Access launched several programs and initiated multiple goals. One example for the neonatal abstinence issue was the First Steps to Healthy Babies program, formed with Sanford Health, Red Lake Family Children Services and Beltrami County.

Additionally, Northern Access members have worked to increase treatment, including medication-assisted treatment, with three new suboxone treatment programs. Another effort has been foster care programs working with families on substance abuse with treatment, without removing the children. New housing resources have also been established.

According to a presentation given during Thursday’s meeting, these measures have been done with a focus on prevention, shifting from punishment to treatment and expediting the movement of children through placement to earlier restoration to their family.

As a result, the number of children in out of home placement has been on the decline. In 2018, the number in Beltrami County fell to 1,148. Then, in 2019, it dropped again to 1,020.

One of the officials joining the meeting to share his comments on Northern Access' work in bringing that number down was District 5A Rep. John Persell, DFL-Bemidji.

“I’m very supportive and have been for a long time of your efforts related to out of home placements and substance abuse,” Persell said. “Another issue I’ve been involved with is paperwork reduction for what you all do, especially with substance abuse disorder. I’ve carried a bill on this and we’re working with the state Health and Human Services department to accomplish that, and it looks like we’re going to need some funding. I’m going to continue working on that because I’ve been made aware that we can do a lot more for people who need therapies if we don’t have so much paperwork, it can be streamlined.”

Another speaker participating in the meeting was Bemidji Mayor Rita Albrecht, who said she wants the city to support Northern Access’ efforts.

“We know that when we come together and collaborate as a community, that’s when we can improve peoples' lives,” Albrecht said. “I think the discussion today has proven the work you’re doing is making a difference. I think it's outstanding that our out of home placements have fallen.

“The proactive work you’re doing, especially with pregnant women, is really important,” said Albrecht. “The work you're also doing to move from punishment to treatment in our drug courts is also important. What we all want, in order to really address this, is to make it a priority, whether that’s locally here, or at the state and federal levels.”