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Lawmakers take part of blame for DHS audit critical of child care oversight

BISMARCK -- State lawmakers who cut positions from the North Dakota Department of Human Services' budget request last year deserve some of the blame for a recent audit that was highly critical of how the agency licenses and monitors child care pr...

BISMARCK - State lawmakers who cut positions from the North Dakota Department of Human Services' budget request last year deserve some of the blame for a recent audit that was highly critical of how the agency licenses and monitors child care providers, members of a legislative committee said Thursday.

The audit released in August found the department failed to properly monitor or suspend providers and notify parents "after confirmed knowledge of activities that jeopardize the health and safety of children." It also was criticized for backdating licenses before all of the paperwork was received and for allowing licenses to become effective before background checks were performed.

The 15-member Legislative Audit and Fiscal Review Committee reviewed the audit Thursday.

Sen. Judy Lee, R-West Fargo, said lawmakers are partly responsible "because much of what is being criticized is documentation." She noted the Legislature cut 4.5 positions from the department's 2015-17 budget request, "and there's only so much that a staff can do."

"I think we have to recognize that it is important for the department to do everything we have required them to do. We also have to, as a legislative body, make sure that there is adequate staff," she said.

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The committee's chairman, Sen. Jerry Klein, R-Fessenden, agreed.

"We've got a lot of pressure in the state to provide child care, but we've got to do it properly," he said.

Executive Director Maggie Anderson said DHS and its county social service partners "take the safety of children very seriously" and have taken auditors' recommendations to heart.

Some of the licensing issues were already being addressed by an advisory group created by Gov. Jack Dalrymple last spring, which is expected to come out with proposed administrative rule changes as soon as next month. Other reforms may require changes in state law, officials said.

Rep. Kathy Hogan, D-Fargo, said that in addition to the staff shortage, the audit identified the state's data system for tracking child care providers is lacking.

"I don't think there was any ill intent by any party, but I think sometimes things just fall through the cracks," she said.

The committee's vice chairman, Rep. Chet Pollert, R-Carrington, said he believes the intent of DHS "is in the right direction." But he also alluded to the challenge facing the Legislature when it convenes in January with drastically reduced tax revenues due to low prices for crude oil and farm commodities.

"We're in a contraction mode. So it's going to be interesting to see, where are our priorities going to lie?" he said.

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