Father seeks social services ombudsman program

BISMARCK — A North Dakota father said he’s on a crusade to make sure what happened to his family doesn’t happen to more families in the state.

John Ford, Rugby, is executive director of the North Dakota Coalition for Child Protection Services and Foster Care Reform. He is lobbying state lawmakers to create an ombudsman’s program for families receiving social services and an independent complaint process.

“Having a social services department or a Department of Human Services that’s accountable to absolutely no one is dangerous,” said Ford, who has fought the state since  his daughter was taken away six years ago.

The legislative Judicial Process Committee will discuss a bill draft on the ombudsman topic at its Thursday meeting in Bismarck. The topic is slated to be discussed at 10:45 a.m. in the Harvest Room of the State Capitol.

Under the proposal, the family and children’s ombudsman office would promote public awareness and understanding of family and children’s services, as well as provide information on the rights and responsibilities of those receiving the services.

The ombudsman would also monitor and ensure compliance with rules relating to family and children’s services and the placement, supervision and treatment of children in the state’s care or in state-licensed facilities.

The office would identify system issues for the governor and Legislature and provide an annual report. The ombudsman would report directly to the governor and be independent from the state Department of Human Services.

Tara Muhlhauser, director of Children and Family Services in the state Department of Human Services, said the proposal looks like a duplication of services already offered.

“If parents and families are dissatisfied with a decision or they need information or they want discussion around something they are concerned about, there are a number of places they can take their concerns,” she said.

For example, the public can contact the Department of Human Services, the governor’s office, county social service directors, county social service boards and county commissioners, Muhlhauser said.

Don Canton, a spokesman for the governor’s office, confirmed the office has a constituent services officer who fields concerns and works closely with the Department of Human Services and other agencies.

Muhlhauser said it’s important to understand how child welfare works in North Dakota.

“Decisions really are made locally in North Dakota because we are a state-supervised but county-administered child welfare system,” she said.

Courts are involved in the removal of a child, and parents can appeal child abuse and neglect decisions, she said.

Ford, who is scheduled to testify Thursday, said he will bring depositions from social workers “showing how easily children and families are tossed away in the system as well as some of the horrific negligence that takes place in the managing of foster care cases in North Dakota.”

Ford said he and his wife moved to North Dakota from California to provide a better environment for their two adopted special needs children. The younger daughter had mental health issues, including reactive attachment disorder.

Four months after arriving in the state, social services took his then 15-year-old daughter and “refused to return custody to us,” Ford said. Since then, Ford said his daughter received three years of poor care before she returned to the streets of Los Angeles at age 18.

“We filed complaint after complaint after complaint. The Department of Human Services took no action,” he said.

“This is a crusade of the heart for us,” Ford added. “We moved to North Dakota because we believed it had strong family values. But when it comes to money, for children in foster care, the family values go right out the window.”

Ombudsman programs are in place in other states, with North Dakota’s proposed office modeled after one in Washington state, Ford said.

Sheri McMahon of Fargo, who has also had a child placed in foster care, also supports creating an ombudsman office.

“We do not expect an ombudsman program, once created, to work miracles,” she wrote in an e-mail. “But it is a step forward in ‘sunshine’ and accountability in the child welfare system, which is currently lacking.”

Muhlhauser of Children and Family Services said it’s up to state policymakers to decide if an ombudsman service is needed in addition to what’s already offered.

“I really think it’s important to understand that we really do share the same goals as those folks that are proposing this bill,” she said. “Our goals really are the safety, well-being and permanency of kids and working to support families and working toward family reunification when appropriate.”