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Grand Forks County foster care caseworkers put in long days, miles

Foster Care caseworker Jacki Lund refuels at the Grand Forks County Shop recently. Her job has her traveling all across N.D. checking on clients in foster care. (Eric Hylden/Grand Forks Herald)1 / 3
Lund's two-day tour2 / 3
Grand Forks County family service programs3 / 3

GRAND FORKS -- Jacki Lund is an over-the-road care giver.

Not all of the time. She spends plenty of hours in her office at Grand Forks County Social Services, where she is one of nine foster care case managers.

But the job does require travel. For instance, the licensed social worker recently drove almost 1,200 miles, just about to all four state borders, in less than 36 hours -- to visit 16 children now placed in foster care.

"I love my job, and I love to drive," Lund said. "I didn't have a problem."

Foster care caseworkers are required by federal law have at least monthly face-to-face contact with youths in the program.

"It drives good practice," said Wayne Piche, family services supervisor with Grand Forks County Social Services. "The requirement is to see that they're safe, that their needs are being met."

Grand Forks County has an average of 120 youths in foster care in any given month. The caseload has grown in recent months. In October, the county was working with 153 youths and 91 families. That's an average of 17 youths and about 10 families per case manager.

About one-third of foster children live outside of the county -- usually with relatives in other parts of the state.

"We work hard to keep kids with family," Piche said. "Often, that means placing children with relatives that live outside of Grand Forks County."

Not all of the 16 youths, who range in age from 3 to 17, Lund visited are part of her normal caseload. While talking with a few other case managers, she said she was planning a trip around the state, and asked if the others had youths in foster care that she could see along the way.

"I had some kids to see at Raleigh and the Home on the Range," Lund said. "When we go, we check with others to see if anybody else had children or clients to see. We talked about the kids. After discussing it, I said I can do this. So then, I mapped it out."

Some of the youths are in treatment in group or residential settings at places such as Prairie Learning Center in Raleigh, N.D., Home on the Range for Boys near Sentinel Butte, and Dakota Boys and Girls Ranch in Minot.

"I got backed up a bit out in western North Dakota at the Home on the Range, so that made for a long day. The whole trip kind of evolved," she said.

Caseworkers often see youths when they return to Grand Forks to see family or for events.

That means that caseworkers often work evenings and weekends because they have to be available when their clients are in town. They don't get paid overtime.

"They do the job to get the job done," Piche said. "We try to give them some flexibility, but we have to see the clients where they live the majority of the time."

Lund has worked with the county social services department for 11 years, the past 10 in foster care case management.

"We seldom work 40 hours a week," she said. "Our workers are on call. They're working in crisis mode a lot. We can be called out at 3 a.m. if a kid doesn't come home."

"Meeting the requirement of seeing these children monthly results in a huge strain on resources, including caseworker time and county finances," Piche said. "We simply can't do drive-by visits. Workers need to spend time interacting with the children and families to assure their safety and to make appropriate plans for them."

Still, Piche said the foster care program has very little turnover.

"I don't know of anybody who left because of the job," he said. "It's been years since anyone said 'I'm too stressed. I'm burned out.'"

The county program has five vehicles, but caseworkers also rent cars to make trips. The agency had traveled about 75,000 miles in the first eight months of 2009. Piche expects this year's total travel to increase by about 20 percent over 2008.

"Marathon trips such as the one that Ms. Lund completed are not typical, but on occasion do happen, to meet state and federal guidelines," Piche said. "It is a fine line of balancing the safety and needs of the children, yet managing the resources we have."