A History of Human Services in North Dakota

The early history of human services in North Dakota goes back to the first territorial assembly in 1862. At that time, counties were designated as responsible for “poor relief.” This was vital to provide basic assistance to children, vulnerable adults and the elderly. In addition, counties were responsible for providing burials for indigent individuals. These core areas are the founding blocks of today’s human service system.

By spring 1934, the Federal Emergency Relief Act (FERA) was passed and local county offices were established in every county throughout the state. By 1935, county Social Service Boards were mandatory. Of interest, Traill County was the last county to participate in FERA and had the lowest participation rate for many years.

By the mid-1930s, more than one-third of the state's residents were receiving some type of assistance from county social service agencies. The early programs were funded by federal and county funds. Aid provided during that time included aid to families with children, old age assistance, commodities, the first food stamp program and work programs. It was determined that these services would be given only to the “worthy poor.” There were very few standardized policies or rules for issuing assistance.

Medical care initially was provided at the county level during the early years of human service programming. This included county hospitals, public health and Crippled Children’s Services. Early foster care was provided at the county level by the County Superintendent of Schools, who was given the responsibility for caring for abandoned/orphaned children. Frequently, these children were transferred to orphanages where they often lived until adulthood.

Major program changes occurred in the 1960s with the births of the modern Medicaid/Medicare program and Food Stamp program. Programs were authorized on an entitlement basis that had uniform rules from county to county and even state to state. This was a major shift in operational philosophy.

The 1970s brought further changes in human service programming. The Energy Assistance Program, Child Support Enforcement, Indian Child Welfare Act, Supplemental Security Income and regional Human Service Centers all were implemented. Also, North Dakota passed its first comprehensive child abuse/neglect law during this time.

During the 1980s major reconstruction of the human service system occurred. Social work licensure was established to create uniform standards and ethics in the practice. The Home and Community Based Service Program for the aged/disabled was formed. Technological advancement occurred changing the way county and state offices performed their duties.

Welfare reform efforts were established on both the federal and state levels during the 1990s. In addition, new legislation and programs were added including the Child Care Assistance Program, Family Preservation Services and the Adoption and Safe Families Act. Also, technological advancements continued to reshape how services were provided.

In the new century, welfare reform has continued. Further standards have been established for child welfare services. The growing aging population and their ongoing needs is a key issue. With explosive growth expected in this area, human service agencies are studying and planning for how they will meet those growing needs in the near future. Technological advancements continue to reshape almost every aspect of program administration. Additionally, as costs continue to rise, the need for increased federal/state funding is crucial as counties respond to meet the needs of citizens.