Sparks flew briefly at Crow Wing County’s Board meeting Tuesday during a discussion on out-of-home placement of children.
Crow Wing County Commissioner Paul Thiede asked outgoing Community Services Director Beth Wilms why the county wasn’t more successful in reducing out-of-home placement costs. Wilms said the intensity of cases, with the level of care some children need, is keeping costs high as families have greater barriers and mental health issues.
“I don’t think this is anything unusual to Crow Wing County,” Wilms said. “Out-of-home placement is one of those huge topics of conversation. I think what we need to remember while it is very costly for us to provide out-of-home placement, the alternative is that we don’t provide early intervention or we don’t get to those kids.”
Poverty in the area is one of the factors putting families in crisis, she said.
“I hate to always say we are driven by dollars,” Wilms said. “We are driven by what’s in the best interest for the children. It’s costly. There is no doubt about it.”
He said he wasn’t questioning the staff’s integrity or passion. But he said he was having a difficult time saying early intervention is going to solve the problem. If solutions aren’t found to tough cases, he said he didn’t see an answer.
“I don’t see a solution to this spiral,” Thiede said.
When Thiede said the problem was getting worse, County Attorney Don Ryan said characterizing the situation as spiraling out of control was unfair and inaccurate. Ryan said the board sought a 30-minute presentation from staff on an issue that could not be addressed in a half hour. And, he noted, no one sitting in front of the board could change the court system that orders some placement cases. Everyone knows the board wants to reduce the costs, but Ryan said it’s not that easy.
“I am extremely proud of the fact that we’ve been aggressive in trying to protect vulnerables in our county for a long time,” Ryan said, noting there has been great debate in whether money spent in one decade would save money in another. It’s hard to calculate, Ryan said.
Staff noted meth addiction was again a growing problem. Thiede questioned if meth penalties were more severe now than in the past and grew frustrated when Ryan said that was a criminal justice issue and not something the social workers before the board to talk about out-of-home placement could address.
“Get as frustrated as you want,” Ryan said. “Put the proper people in the room if you want to have the discussion. Don’t try to get your 20-second sound bite.”
Thiede said: “I’m not trying to get a 20-second sound bite Mr. Attorney.”
Thiede said he’d be happy to put everyone together for days if need by if it would lead to a solution.
Administrator Tim Houle intervened saying the likelihood of solving all of life’s intractable problems at the board table wasn’t high but the question is how can the county change its practices for continuous improvement and change practices to adapt to changing circumstances.
Board Chairman Doug Houge said that discussion could take an entire day and suggested the topic be revisited.
During the presentation on placement numbers and costs, Lynda Erickson, Crow Wing County supervisor for the Child Protection Assessment Unit, said some placements are driven by the court system. The county’s most expensive placement is a juvenile sex offender. The cost for a child in foster home may be $20 per day. The cost for a sex offender in treatment may be $300. Erickson said there were a variety of cases in between.
Thiede said by boring into the issues he didn’t want to give the impression of micro management or that he was dissatisfied with staff. Neither was true, Thiede said. The number of children in the county’s child protection rose from 281 in 2010 to 388 in 2011. The county had an average of 137 children per month in out-of-home placement last year, up from 133 in 2010. Child protection assessment rose from 257 in 2010 to 284 a year later.
The total number of youths placed out of their homes actually decreased slightly between 2011 and 2010, from 228 to 223. While there are fewer children placed outside of their homes, the county reported costs are going up. Children are taken placed outside their homes in some cases for in-patient treatment for juvenile sex offenders. In other cases, children are removed for their protection. Costs during that time rose from $2,929,102 to $3,023,199.