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UND Social Work Department studies child welfare, trains workers in Indian country

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The Dickinson Press
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GRAND FORKS -- The University of North Dakota's Social Work Department has grown dramatically in the past decade and, in doing so, it's making a greater impact on the way the state reaches out to its American Indian population.

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Grants received by the university along with a partnership between UND and tribal communities are improving the lives of American Indian children and their families, according to former department Chairwoman Thomasine Heitkamp. This wouldn't be possible without the expansion of the department itself, she said.

The department is UND's third-largest graduate program outside the medical school, a milestone it reached in 2007.

Student enrollment has also increased over the past decade. Undergraduate enrollment reached 178 this past spring, and the graduate program made a more significant leap from 35 in spring 2002 to 154 this past spring.

"I think when you build up infrastructure, quality faculty and quality staff, it allows more opportunities," Heitkamp said.

"Social work research is unique in that we don't just 'study and report,'" said Melanie Sage, a child-welfare social-work researcher at UND. "Research is often change- or action-oriented, and involves direct intervention for vulnerable populations as well as development of best practices."

Key population

Of critical concern for the Social Work Department is that 30 percent of children in foster care are Indian, even though Native children represent only about 10 percent of the state's population.

Many of these children stay in foster care until age 18 and get released without a permanent plan, which contributes to the growing number of impoverished Indians in the state, Sage said.

The reason for the disproportionate number of Indian children in foster care is complex.

High rates of poverty and unemployment have been found in tribal reservations, and alcohol and drug abuse there has been on the rise, according to the 2012 North Dakota State Epidemiological Profile and other state reports.

Overall drug abuse in these communities has been related to decades of historical disruption, such as when the government has taken land, Sage said. This trauma has led to child neglect, not just the drinking, she said.

The high numbers may also be traced to an unintentional exaggeration in reporting. Children might be in foster care because they were living with a nonrelative who is like family to them, but the child welfare system might not recognize the relationship. They may assume the child was left with "some friend," Sage said.

"Mandated reporters are more likely to suspect abuse and then report it in a Native child because of their assumptions about those families," she said.

Research

As the state's sole child-welfare social-work researcher, Sage conducts research that has a widespread impact.

With two grants worth nearly $300,000, she's evaluating courts' compliance with the federal Indian Child Welfare Act provisions and how the state can involve Indian families more in child welfare issues.

"A lot of people assume these programs are working, but they have no evidence of it, so this helps them know the money we're getting is going to good use, and if not, how to divert it to other programs that work," she said.

Currently, Sage is working with several state and community organizations, including the North Dakota Commission of Indian Affairs, to secure a $5 million grant to support North Dakota youth transitioning out of foster care.

Partnership

Heitkamp, who chaired the department for nine years, said one of the biggest impacts the department has had on the state is the agreement between UND and Sitting Bull College in Fort Yates to collaborate on an undergraduate social-work degree program.

Presidents from both institutions agreed last year to the partnership, which will help students qualify to become licensed social workers. UND faculty members teach the classes six times a semester.

"We know there's a need for a better trained childcare workforce across the state," Heitkamp said. "We're always interested in serving rural and reservation communities and allowing more opportunities for those who can't necessarily relocate to campus."

In a 2011 report by the Social Work Department, 42 percent of human services administrators surveyed said they felt there was a shortage of social workers, particularly in rural areas and the western part of the state. Mental health, children and violence and abuse ranked among the most necessary service needs.

Kenneth Flanagan, director of UND's Bachelor of Science in Social Work Program, said 12 students enrolled in the three-year program this past fall, and interest continues to grow. A majority of students who take these classes are already employed in positions with the tribe or other human-service centers, he said.

"We will be looking at opportunities to potentially work collaboratively with other tribal institutions and some of those discussions have already occurred," he said. "We are constantly looking at ways of being of service to the state in terms of meeting the needs for professionally trained and licensed social workers."

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