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A missed chance to protect Spirit Lake children? -- Lawmakers disagree whether rejection of fed grant was a slap at 'Obamacare'

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A refusal by the 2011 North Dakota Legislature to advance anything linked to "Obamacare" blocked a federally-funded program that could have aided child protection on the Spirit Lake Sioux reservation, according to two House Democrats and the head of a state group working to end child abuse.

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The renewable federal grant for $1.8 million was in the governor's budget for the state Health Department to provide home visitations by nurses, social workers and other trained professionals in Benson and Rolette counties, home respectively to the Spirit Lake Sioux and Turtle Mountain Chippewa reservations.

But the money was stripped by a House Appropriations subcommittee.

"We didn't know at that point in time the extent and gravity of the situation at Spirit Lake," Rep. Lee Kaldor, D-Mayville, said. "But we were told these funds would go to that area, so this was a terrible missed opportunity. Vulnerable children are at risk, and this would have been a piece of a solution."

Rep. Marvin Nelson, D-Rolla, whose district includes the Turtle Mountain reservation, said that he also was frustrated by what seemed a politically motivated decision.

"The Legislature dropped the ball," he said. "The governor put it in his budget, but it didn't get out of committee.

"It wasn't going to cost the state a thing, and we had an opportunity to address the situation. But they were so opposed to Obamacare, they stripped the money out."

Republican legislative leaders say there were other reasons to reject the grant and the action had nothing to do with opposition to President Obama's Affordable Care Act. Meanwhile, advocates led by Prevent Child Abuse North Dakota say they've applied for the grant and a chance to administer the visitation program themselves.

The child protection system at Spirit Lake has been under sharp scrutiny in recent weeks, with a federal official, former tribal social workers and others alleging that corruption, factionalism and incompetence have contributed to a "crisis" in child welfare there.

Tribal officials have said lack of funding and a shortage of trained professionals have contributed to problems years in the making.

GOP cite funding, privacy concerns

Republican leaders said their opposition to the grant reflected a reluctance to implement a new program that could become the state's responsibility when federal funding ended. Also, the home visitation program struck some as overly intrusive.

"We see that a lot of times, that federal money comes in, we start a program and then that federal money dries up," said Rep. Jeff Delzer, R-Underwood, chairman of the Appropriations Committee.

Members of the subcommittee that voted to remove the grant from the Health Department's appropriation "did not see the merits of the program," Delzer added. "Is it our duty to go in and tell people how to live their lives, or is it for people to determine themselves how to live?"

Rep. Al Carlson, R-Fargo, the House majority leader, said Delzer "is right on all counts," and rejection of the grant "was not because of a possible tie" to Obamacare.

Dems, others cite partisan 'vitriol'

Kaldor said opponents did cite other reasons for rejecting the home visitation grants, including a belief "that in-home visitations were intrusive and an invasion of people's privacy."

"But the vitriol that has been pumped up around Obamacare did a lot of damage in terms of us trying to address health care issues, including child abuse," he said. "Is the act perfect? Of course not. But this is one example of a really good idea going under because of a partisan political point of view."

Tim Hathaway, executive director of Prevent Child Abuse North Dakota, said he lobbied for the state accepting the visitation grants and was told it had no chance due to its association with the president's controversial health care plan.

"We had people from both sides of the aisle who were very supportive," he said. "But it was shared with me by legislators -- Republicans and Democrats -- that it was a political football. The political leadership had said this is related to Obamacare and we are not going to vote for anything associated with Obamacare."

Effectiveness

Kim Mertz, director of the state Health Department's division of family health, said she couldn't comment on why the subcommittee cut the grant. But she said the plan had broad support among legislators of both parties. Home visitation programs "are proven effective at improving infant and child outcomes," she said, from improved birth weights to higher high school graduation rates -- and a huge drop in abuse.

Hathaway said home visitation by nurses and trained social workers "is one of the most effective tools we have to prevent child abuse. Research shows that high-quality home visitation can reduce abuse by 50 percent."

He said he told legislators "that this funding really had nothing to do with changing or manipulating individual health care. Our feeling was, regardless of how you felt politically, the funding was for helping families."

Nelson said visitations would be voluntary, set up only when families ask for help.

"It's not that people don't want to take care of their kids," he said. "In a lot of cases, they just don't know how. These are often people who have been in poverty a long time, and some never learned how to be a parent. They had bad parent examples themselves, or no parents around. The social worker comes into the home and sees what's going on and offers advice and help."

Nonprofit attempt

After the 2011 session ended, Hathaway and others built a home visitation coalition of about 30 organizations. In June, acting with Lutheran Social Services, the Center for Social Research at North Dakota State University in Fargo and the Great Plains Tribal Chairmans Association, Prevent Child Abuse North Dakota applied for the funding and the chance to implement the program themselves.

Hathaway said he expects the grant to be awarded by the end of September.

It would be a three-year project, funded by a grant of $1.5 million the first year and $1 million each for the second and third years. It would serve about 250 children in Rolette and Benson counties, identified earlier by state health officials as the areas most in need.

There is national competition for the grants, Hathaway said, "but we're feeling very confident," in part because of the high level of attention being paid now to Spirit Lake.

"There are lots of folks there who are very concerned about what's going on and very committed to seeing something happen," he said. "They don't feel they have the resources they need to deal with some of the issues, and coordination is an issue they're struggling with. But I absolutely believe they want to see improvements made and changes happen."

Chuck Haga writes for the Grand Forks Herald. He can be reached at (701) 780-1102; (800) 477-6572, ext. 1102; or send email to chaga@gfherald.com.

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