December 29, 2010

Social Services struggles to deal with a dramatic caseload increase

By Tina Foreman
Farmer Staff Writer

As Watford City continues to grow, so does the workload for the area’s state and county entities. One entity that has seen incredible growth is McKenzie County Social Services.
“In the two years that I have been working in McKenzie County, our office has changed dramatically,” says Amy Fast, McKenzie County Social Services director. “Thanks to the McKenzie County Commissioners, we have been able to add staff to help keep a handle on the area’s growth, and we are still all very busy.”
According to a recent housing study, Watford City’s population has grown from 1,400 to over 1,800, and it is still growing with an estimated new population of 2,300 before the growth is over.
“Part of our growth in cases is due to an influx in people,” says Fast. “However, I don’t think that the new people are the reason for the majority of our increases. That I attribute to an excellent representation of community members and the local entities that we work with. I think the good working relationship between professionals in the community and Social Services has made area residents feel safe, that any concerns they have will be kept confidential and that things will be taken care of.”
Although she knows that some of the increases are due to having more people in the community, Fast is confident that a number of the added cases are simply the result of more people taking their concerns or their problems to Social Services.
The largest increase that Fast has noticed comes from Child Protection Services. The purpose of Child Protection Services is to protect the health and welfare of children by encouraging the reporting of children who are known to be or suspected of being abused or neglected. In 2008, McKenzie County had 47 child protection cases. In 2009 the number rose to 57, and as of Dec. 21, 2010 that number had risen to a staggering 95 cases.
“The jump in child protection cases is unreal,” adds Fast. “With more people you expect more cases, but we aren’t seeing an overrepresentation of new people. So I think a lot of it is just coming from people feeling more comfortable about reporting their concerns.”
Other increases include the number of children in Foster Care and the amount of economic assistance that Social Services is providing.
“Over the past two years, we have seen a 71.4 percent increase in Foster Care cases, an increase of 20.6 percent in Medicaid recipients, an increase of 36.6 percent in food stamps and a 5.8 percent increase in heating assistance,” states Fast. “The most difficult increase is in Foster Care. We went from 12 children in Foster Care in 2009 to 22 right now. That jump is especially hard when we only have one foster family in McKenzie County.”
Having only one foster family in the county makes things difficult for Social Services because when there are no local families available, children have to be placed outside of the county.
“We have foster kids as far as 150 miles away,” adds Fast. “That makes things really difficult, especially when we are working to reunite the families. We are in dire need for foster families here in McKenzie County, and I encourage anyone who may be interested to contact our office for more information.”
Another resource that has seen increased use is the McKenzie County Food Bank, which is being run by Social Services and the North Dakota State University Extension office.
“It’s hard to say how much the use of the Food Pantry has increased because we’ve only recently gotten involved, but we know there has been an increase, says Karen Holte, McKenzie County Social Services eligibility worker. “However, one thing that we have noticed is that for the most part, people are only using the food bank once or twice and then we don’t see them again. That is a good indication that this service is working by helping people to get back on their feet.”
According to Holte, no one is ever turned away from the Food Pantry. The only requirement to receive assistance is that recipients sign a form stating that they have received the food and all of the information is kept confidential.
“The Food Pantry, which is located in the basement of First Lutheran Church, is open the third Tuesday of every month from 2 to 4 p.m.,” comments Holte. “In cases where you can’t make it during our regular hours of operation, you can contact our office and we will open it by appointment.”
Even though the office is getting crowded and the workload continues to increase, McKenzie County Social Services is thankful to have the support of the community and some extra staff.
“The community has been great,” adds Fast. “Because of their wonderful donations, we have been able to provide safe and fun family outings for our clients as well as having funds available when the need arises. We are very fortunate to live in such a giving community.”
McKenzie County Social Services currently has four social workers, one parent aide, three in-home care workers, four eligibility workers and one administration employee.
“According to the predictions, it looks like our office will need two more social workers for the amount of cases we have,” says Fast. “Added workers that we could definitely use, even though we are already doubled up and running out of office space.”