Funding available for alcohol-free parties

North Dakota communities and organizations can apply for $1,000 in funding for alcohol-free New Year’s Eve events.

The North Dakota Department of Human Services’ Division of Mental Health and Substance Abuse Services said up to 75 communities can receive funding.

Events must last a minimum of four consecutive hours—including midnight—and must be alcohol and drug free and suitable for all ages.

“New Year’s Eve is often associated with alcohol use. We want to provide opportunities for communities to host alcohol and drug free events for residents,” Pamela Sagness, prevention administrator for the division, said in a statement. “This is part of an ongoing effort to provide substance abuse prevention resources at the local level.”

The deadline to apply is Dec. 3. The application is available at

Autism task force report shows lacking services in N.D.

BISMARCK—Autism spectrum disorder services in North Dakota are inadequate, information is scarce, and training is needed for parents and professionals, a recent survey found.

Results from the state Autism Spectrum Disorder Task Force’s spring survey were included in an 11-page report presented Tuesday to state lawmakers on the interim Education Committee.

Survey responses said North Dakota needs more qualified individuals to deliver evidence-based services, and people need to know how to access autism spectrum disorder services.

The survey responses are a snapshot, not an official sample, said JoAnne Hoesel, the task force chairwoman.

“But it did give us some insight into what people are thinking about this situation in the state,” she said.

Rep. RaeAnn Kelsch, R-Mandan, called the report “enlightening.”

“When you look at the Legislature’s history in dealing with autism, we have been responsive,” she said. “Having this study and having this report, we’ll take this seriously. We will take a real strong look at what we need to do during the legislative session.”

The 2009 Legislature created the task force to study autism spectrum disorder and develop a state plan. The task force includes state officials, a pediatrician, a behavior analyst, parents and educators.

“These are individuals that work with individuals that have conditions on the spectrum,” said Hoesel of the Department of Human Services. “So I believe that it (the survey) confirmed what they see on, if not a daily basis, what they see and hear from individuals that they work with.”

The task force report pointed to a lack of accurate and localized information for parents, lack of standardized training for screening and long waits for diagnostic consultations.

Other barriers listed include inconsistent health insurance coverage for diagnosis and treatment, as well as limited service options for those who don’t qualify for developmental disabilities Medicaid waivers or the autism spectrum disorder waiver.

The report also said respite care is minimally available and insufficient to meet needs, and employment supports are lacking for individuals with the disorder.

Top survey suggestions and recommendations relate to training for educators, a resource list and school mistrust issues.

Popular responses to “What would you like included in our state plan for addressing autism?” were increase funding in education for these needs, train all teachers – not just special education teachers, and early identification and earlier intervention.

Hoesel said the role of the task force is to present the information and its recommendations to lawmakers for them to decide how to move forward.

Rep. Phil Mueller, D-Valley City, said he expects more specifics will be available about what the state needs to do and how much it will cost by the time the Legislature begins in January.

“The problem here is that most families cannot deal with these issues with their own resources. There has to be help,” he said. “I do think we need to do what we can do to assist the parents of these young folks with these afflictions to get the proper treatment for them.”

Hoesel said the task force will continue to meet to review and update the state plan.

“Parents have been dealing with this situation a long time. I want them to know that there’s formalized attention being paid to this,” Hoesel said.

“The task force takes their job seriously, and we’ll continue to monitor and inform the policymakers on what we hear from them and also what we hear from service providers in the state.”

A copy of the task force report can be found here: autism task force report.

New website for N.D. teens

BISMARCK – A new website aims to make the transition to adulthood less scary for teenagers.

The North Dakota Department of Human Services’ Independent Living Program has launched

The site includes 15 sections with information on independent living, money management, addiction recovery, careers, employment, cultural resources, housing, education and crisis management.

There are also special features, such as tips on job interviewing, how to find an apartment and “45 things to know before turning 18.”

The site has more than 150 links to local and national organizations, as well as services young people may find helpful.

The website was developed by older teens and young adults as a resource for others, especially youth receiving foster care, juvenile justice or mental health services who are now preparing to live on their own, said Tara Muhlhauser, director of the Children and Family Services Division.

Heating bill help available for low-income families

Low-income individuals and families concerned about winter heating costs can begin applying for help Friday. 

The federally-funded Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program pays for part of the heating costs of qualifying households, as well as furnace repairs and weatherization services, a news release from the state Department of Human Services said. 

To qualify, a household can earn up to 60 percent of the state median income, which for a family of three equals about $36,843 per year. 

People can apply at their local county social service office through. The application is also available at and should be completed and returned to the county office. 

Last heating season, the state program helped about 16,000 North Dakota households.

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.

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.”

Summit looks at substance abuse in N.D.

BISMARCK — “Not a worry in the world, a cold beer in my hand. Life is good today.”

A catchy country music song … or another sign of alcohol’s prevalence in the country’s culture?

About 250 people are attending the Alcohol and Substance Abuse Summit this week in Bismarck. Substance abuse prevention and treatment professionals are exploring intervention, treatment and recovery options during the annual event.

One presentation included multiple examples of song lyrics that make alcohol sound attractive, including the above lyrics by the Zac Brown Band.

The song was played during a North Dakota high school sporting event, said Pam Sagness of the North Dakota Department of Human Services.

Concerts, sports stadiums, celebrities and music lyrics show alcohol as being part of having a good time.

People can say that’s how it’s always been, or that’s just the way it is, Sagness said. Or, they can start looking at how to change the culture.

In North Dakota, underage drinking costs the state about $141 million per year, she said. Almost half of all arrests are alcohol related. Alcohol is a contributing factor in 35 percent of domestic violence incidents.

The state is also No. 1 in binge-drinking rates for ages 18 to 25.

Yet, a survey of North Dakotans found 65.2 percent said adult alcohol use was a minor to moderate problem in their community.

“This tells you there is a lack of awareness of the extent of the problem in the state,” said JoAnne Hoesel, director of the state’s Mental Health and Substance Abuse Services Division.

The state is looking into targeted strategies and new treatments, as well as acknowledging there are differences among communities and one size doesn’t fit all, she said.

“We have some issues here in North Dakota, but we’re going to be part of that solution,” Hoesel told conference participants.

One of the day’s speakers was Ken Winters of the University of Minnesota, who spoke about working with teens and young adults.

Adolescents may be the toughest age group to treat because they may go back to the same problems at school or home that contributed to the alcohol or drug use, he said.

The progress of brain maturation also makes this group susceptible to alcohol and drug use, Winters said. Young people have a preference for high excitement and low-effort activities and for activities with peers that trigger high intensity. There’s also less consideration of negative consequences.

When helping youth with alcohol or drug problems, express empathy and avoid arguing, Winters said. Try to get the person to realize the addiction is getting in the way of goals and include parents with the treatment process.

Ask the young person what they like about drugs or alcohol and why they keep doing it, and then ask what other things could fulfill those benefits, he said.

Other ideas include connecting teens with support groups, showing them healthier ways to cope with anxiety and depression, and helping them return to something they gave up because of their addition

The Alcohol and Substance Abuse Summit continues today in Bismarck.

Online application for public assistance programs

From a news release:

The North Dakota Department of Human Services announced today that people can apply online for assistance programs, such as Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (food stamps), Child Care Assistance and Medicaid. 

Since activating the link to the online application on Aug. 19, 109 applications have been completed and submitted securely over the Internet. 

“This gives North Dakotans more choices in how they can apply for help,” Tove Mandigo, director of the department’s Economic Assistance Policy Division, said in a statement. “Previously people applied by calling, corresponding, or going into their county social service office. We recognized that this is a hardship for some applicants who are elderly, have disabilities, or have young children. It also affects applicants who have jobs and work, but need temporary short-term help due to some sort of setback in their households.”

Department data show that almost half of the online applications received through last Friday were from people seeking Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program help. Twenty-five percent were for Medicaid or the Healthy Steps Children’s Health Insurance Program.

Mandigo said North Dakotans can complete the application at their convenience at Completed online applications are routed electronically to the appropriate local county social service office, where their employees review the information and follow-up with people to determine if they qualify for programs. 

It uses the same login process as other online North Dakota government applications, including child support enforcement, Game and Fish, and Department of Transportation. Anyone who has already obtained a state login for those services can use their existing login.

Those less comfortable with technology will continue to have other options. If they prefer, they can print out a paper application from, complete it and return it to their county social service office. They can also call their county social service office and ask for an application to be mailed to them, or they can go to a county office to meet with an eligibility worker and complete an application in person.

Information about public assistance programs and client rights is at

This week’s Ask Your Government

Dear readers,

This week’s Ask Your Government question comes from a reader in the northeastern part of the state. Here’s what she asked:

“Can the government step in and do an investigation into the Catholic Church clergy abuse of children and women instead of the Catholic Church policing itself?

Even in rural North Dakota, we aren’t exempt from this problem of clergy abuse. I’d like to know what the government has to say.”

It took me several phone calls to determine the best way to answer this question.

A spokeswoman for the North Dakota U.S. Attorney’s Office said there would be “no comment from our office on this subject.” However, I did get responses from others.

North Dakota State’s Attorneys Association Executive Director Aaron Birst said:

“From a legal perspective, law enforcement has the ability to investigate any person or organization that it suspects is or has been involved in criminal activity.

“Generally, those investigations start when someone makes a specific allegation of wrongdoing to a law enforcement agency or someone who is otherwise required by law to report the allegation.

“Law enforcement can seek court orders compelling searches for evidence, but those orders cannot be issued unless law enforcement first provides the court probable cause that such property, potentially, constitutes evidence of a crime.”

Here’s what Marlys Baker, administrator of Child Protection Services with the state Department of Human Services, said:

“County social service agencies accept all reports of suspected child abuse or neglect and use their expertise to analyze the reports and ensure that concerns are sent to the appropriate entity to be addressed.

“When a county social service agency receives a report of suspected child abuse or neglect, the report is first reviewed to determine whether the report concerns a child under age 18. Adults who want to report past abuse are referred to law enforcement.

“Another part of this analysis is whether the person suspected of abusing the child was in one of the ‘caregiver roles’ listed in the North Dakota child protection law (NDCC 50-25.1):

  • A person who has responsibility for the care or supervision of a child and who is the child’s parent, an adult family member of the child, any member of the child’s household, the child’s guardian or the child’s foster parent.
  • Employees and persons providing care for a child in a public or private school or child care setting.

“So, if a clergy person meets this definition, the social service agency will begin an assessment. If the person suspected of abusing or neglecting a child is not in one of these roles, social services cannot intervene, and it may become a law enforcement matter.”

Tanya Watterud, a spokeswoman for the Catholic Diocese of Fargo, said the following:

“Information regarding what the Catholic Church has done nationally to respond to sexual abuse can be found at

“The Catholic Diocese of Fargo reports incidents or suspected incidents of sexual abuse of minors to civil authorities as required by law.

“The diocese includes the following notice in publications and on its website to assist others with reporting abuse:

“ ‘The Diocese of Fargo is committed to the protection of youth. Please report any incidents or suspected incidents of child abuse, including sexual abuse, to civil authorities.

‘If the situation involves a member of the clergy or a religious order, a seminarian, or an employee of a Catholic school, parish, the diocesan offices or other Catholic entity within the diocese, we ask that you also report the incident or suspected incident to Msgr. Joseph P. Goering, vicar general, at (701) 356-7945 or to Larry Bernhardt, victim assistance coordinator, at (701) 356-7965 or

‘For additional information about victim assistance, visit

‘The Diocese of Fargo is audited for compliance with The Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People annually, with on-site audits, like the audit currently under way for the Diocese of Fargo, being conducted every third year.

‘The Diocese of Fargo was found to be in full compliance with the charter following the 2009 audit.’ ”

Do you have a question for a state government official or agency? Send us your question, and we’ll do our best to find an answer.

E-mail (Subject: Ask your government).

You may also write to Teri Finneman, c/o Forum Communications, Press Room, State Capitol, Bismarck, ND 58505.

Please include your name, town and a phone number to reach you for verification.

Alcohol and substance abuse summit planned

From a news release:

Substance abuse prevention and treatment professionals will gather to explore intervention, treatment and recovery options during the annual Alcohol and Substance Abuse Summit next week.

The summit is set for Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday at the Best Western Ramkota Hotel in Bismarck. It is sponsored by the North Dakota Department of Human Services’ Mental Health and Substance Abuse Services Division. 

The event will feature numerous educational workshops hosted by in-state and nationally-recognized substance abuse prevention and mental health experts, a news release said. 

Topics include the effects of therapy, intervention and treatment strategies for adolescents, medications used in the treatment of addictions, gender specific treatments, brain injuries and addictions, and more.  

“There are many different pathways to drug and alcohol recovery,” JoAnne Hoesel, director of the Mental Health and Substance Abuse Services Division, said in a statement. “This summit encourages participants to network and learn about new strategies and individualized solutions that create a positive environment for people in recovery.”

Nearly 230 people are registered for the event which is open to addiction and professional counselors, psychologists, prevention coordinators, educators, medical personnel, social workers, and other interested individuals. 

Registration will be accepted at the door. For more details or a schedule of events, go to

Notable Workshop Speakers

Tuesday, Sept. 7

David Powell, Ph.D., is a licensed alcohol and drug abuse counselor and author.  He will conduct the day long pre-conference workshop on becoming a more effective clinical supervisor.      

Wednesday, Sept. 8

Dr. Larry Burd, Ph.D., has studied the effects of prenatal alcohol exposure for 35 years.  Dr. Burd will lead a discussion from 10:15-11:15 a.m. on Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder and its effect on adult substance abuse treatment.

Wednesday, Sept. 8

Earl Beal, Ph.D., is a consultant on mental health issues related to victims of trauma who focuses on military and veteran populations.  He will conduct a presentation from 1:30-2:30 p.m. on deployment psychology and will offer intervention strategies to respond to mental health and substance abuse related issues for veterans.

Pamela Sagness is a licensed addiction counselor with the Dept. of Human Services.  Her 1:30-2:30 p.m. presentation titled The Millennials are Coming will explore the role alcohol and drugs play in today’s music, technology and culture.

Thursday, Sept. 9

Lureen McNeil, MBA, has worked in the field of chemical dependency for 21 years focusing on treatment and prevention services.  Her keynote address from 8:45 to 9:45 a.m. will focus on developing recovery-oriented system of care that offers an unique person-centered approach to substance abuse recovery.