BEMIDJI -- For most of the 2010s, the number of children in Beltrami County's out-of-home placement system rose on a yearly basis.

The fever finally broke in 2018, though, when the number started to decline. The trend continued in 2019, too, according to the county's Department of Health and Human Services.

The number of children in foster care reached a high in the past 10 years at 1,262 in 2017. The number was the height of a steady increase in the decade, with the amount at 497 in 2010, 631 in 2012, 919 in 2014 and 1,172 in 206.

In 2018, though, the number fell to 1,148 and this past year, the amount declined to 1,020.

"It seems like our numbers have been trending down for a while now," said Jeffrey Lind, director of Beltrami County's Social Services Division. "I think part of that has to do with some of the partnerships we have within the community, working with local providers that are doing chemical use assessments and treatments."

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According to Lind, many of the placements in the last decade were related to chemical use, which has continued to be the case. While the department continues to respond to child protection cases, though, Lind said more work is being done to find ways to keep the child in the home.

"Our investigators are really working to look at whether a child can remain in the home, make sure the homes can be safe and that we can continue providing for them, rather than remove them. Because there's the understanding that any time you remove a child, you're creating trauma."

Becky Secore, director of Beltrami County Health and Human Services, said there have been several specific programs based on prevention that have been helping, too. These include the Parents Support Outreach program, and the Family Group Decision Making program. The latter brings the family together to talk about what kind of solutions can be created.

"Our ongoing child protection case managers have also been working with the courts to reduce the amount of time a child is in placement and we're doing more home visits than we have in the past," Lind said. "We're really trying to make active efforts to work with families and the courts to alleviate the issues that brought them to our attention."

"Another big factor is improving our partnership with Red Lake's department, and their numbers have also declined significantly," Secore said. "They've worked hard to implement culturally sensitive programming and have made active efforts to try and keep kids in their homes."

Lind also said in the longer-term cases, pre-placement meetings are now held to look at what options are available. The end goal being to find a safe way to keep the child at home.

"Systemically, I think there have been improvements, too," Secore said. "There's no scientific study done on this yet, but you have to imagine some of the systemic changes have made a positive impact."

An example of this, Lind said, is how the human services department works with those experiencing substance abuse.

"For a while, if a person tested positive, it was pretty clear that a child would have been removed," Lind said. "What we're doing now is we're trying to offer other options. When we have a parent working voluntarily and actively with us, and maybe at some time during a pregnancy there was a positive test, it doesn't necessarily mean the child will be removed from the home. It has to do with what kind of cooperation we're getting from the family and what safety plans we can put in place."

Future of foster care and finances

When the numbers were rising at the department, it was putting strain on the county's finances. This was especially clear at the end of 2017.

At the end of that year, the total expense for out-of-home placements was $11.9 million. For the year, the property tax levy included $4.1 million for placements, while federal, state and third party reimbursements covered $4.75 million. This resulted in a $3 million shortfall that was covered by the county's general fund.

In 2019, county commissioners were presented with a report that showed the general fund balance could potentially go negative in either 2022 or 2023 if the number of places continued to rise. Fortunately, though, the Minnesota Legislature provided $3 million to the county for relief.

"There's been a huge improvement in our funding at Health and Human Services, which overall has had a positive impact on the whole county," Secore said. "The $3 million was one, another is the numbers going down also, we've seen improved reimbursements through Title IV-E revenue, which is based on a federal statute. With those three areas, we're in the black for 2019, we're pretty excited to be able to say that."

Another positive step was the Legislature authorizing the Red Lake Nation to create a new program, which has been referred to as the Red Lake Initiative. Starting Jan. 1, 2021, the program will allow the reservations to operate fully independent on out-of-home placements.

While Red Lake Nation is currently legally responsible for those services, the county has remained financially responsible. The initiative would allow Red Lake to work directly with the federal government on finances, though, taking the county out of the process. The Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe and White Earth Nation have similar initiatives.

"We're in the process with Red Lake and the Minnesota Department of Human Services to create a memorandum of understanding that will outline the transition process," Secore said. "It's been a great partnership."

While there has been progress made, though, officials said it will take continued partnerships and cooperation from families to keep the trend going.

"Most of the programs we've mentioned are early prevention programs and are often voluntary services," Lind said. "I think those voluntary services offer the best opportunity for people to find success. If they're volunteering, it means they want to make a change, and having those services available have been helpful."

"Our work is not over, we still have a lot of work to do," Secore said. "We'll continue to build those community partnerships to try and address these issues."