Senate committees finalized

The Senate has compiled its list of committee assignments for the 2011 Legislature.

Sen. Ray Holmberg, R-Grand Forks, will serve as chairman of the Appropriations Committee.  Sen. Layton Freborg, R-Underwood, will chair Education. Sen. Dwight Cook, R-Mandan, will chair Finance and Taxation.

Sen. Jerry Klein, R-Fessenden, will chair Industry, Business and Labor. Sen. Dave Nething, R-Jamestown, will chair Judiciary. Sen. Judy Lee, R-West Fargo, will chair Human Services.

Sen. Dick Dever, R-Bismarck, will chair Government and Veterans Affairs. Sen. Stan Lyson, R-Williston, will chair Natural Resources. Sen. John Andrist, R-Crosby, will chair Political Subdivisions.

Sen. Gary Lee, R-Casselton, will chair Transportation, and Sen. Tim Flakoll, R-Fargo, will chair Agriculture.

Child services proposal rejected

I’ve been too busy to blog lately, so I’m catching up. Here was Friday’s story:

BISMARCK – Parents gave tearful testimony Thursday as they told state lawmakers about social services taking their children away and the battles they’ve faced with the system ever since.

Nine people testified in favor of creating a family and children’s ombudsman program in the state in what they said would create more accountability and offer an independent resource for families.

After three hours of discussion, however, the bill draft did not get the votes to advance out of the legislative Judicial Process Committee. The vote was primarily along party lines, with Republicans against and Democrats in favor.

Under the proposal, the ombudsman office duties would include monitoring and ensuring 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 ombudsman would be independent from the state Department of Human Services.

John Ford of Rugby said social workers “have absolutely no accountability.”

“Absolute power corrupts absolutely, and social services, the Department of Human Services have absolute power,” said Ford, executive director of the North Dakota Coalition for Child Protection Services and Foster Care Reform.

Kris Wishinsky, a University of North Dakota student, said she has more than 25 years of experience dealing with the system.

“The current policy and procedures that families have as a resource for a grievance or an appeal is seriously a joke,” she said.

Lorie Hendricks of La­Moure, who testified about not being allowed to adopt her grandchildren, said taxpayers are paying for children to be raised by someone else when family would take them.

While lawmakers sympathized, some wondered if creating another layer of government was the answer.

“I get the sense from the people that testified that you feel it (an ombudsman program) will solve those problems, that it will be the panacea or the silver bullet for solving the problems that others like you have faced,” Sen. Curtis Olafson, R-Edinburg, said.

He said he isn’t sure there is any guarantee another agency would achieve that.

Sen. Judy Lee, R-West Fargo, said the ombudsman program outlined in the bill draft would need an enormous staff and be extremely costly.

Rep. Kim Koppelman, R-West Fargo, didn’t favor establishing new bureaucracy.

“I do believe the fox is watching the henhouse perhaps, but I’m not sure if this is the right approach,” he said.

Tara Muhlhauser, director of Children and Family Services in the state Department of Human Services, said there are already avenues in place to hear constituents and address issues in the system.

“If there are children that aren’t being served or families that aren’t being heard, it’s my job to make sure somebody is hearing them and somebody is looking at the situation,” she said.

She said there’s a big difference between being heard and disagreeing with the outcome.

Carol Olson, executive director of the state Department of Human Services, said she would like more authority over counties in North Dakota’s state-supervised but county-administered child welfare system.

“I will admit that, yes, we have some areas of concern, of high concern in some of the counties,” she said. “Do we need to work on them? Absolutely.”

She gave lawmakers her word the department would “get down to the nuts and bolts of figuring out what is going to be the best way to deal with this and work it out.” Olson also told lawmakers they don’t know the other side to the stories presented by the families.

Committee Chairwoman Rep. Shirley Meyer, D-Dickinson, told Human Services she hopes it prepares something by the legislative session.

“I hope that we are approached and we have something not just, you know, process as usual, but that we have some concrete, solid ‘What are we going to do about this?’ ” she said.