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Crow Wing County sees 7-year low of children in out-of-home placements

Griffin estimated a typical year-to-date figure would be 20 to 30 children, and she compared the one placement this year to a time in 2016 or 2017 when 18 youths were removed from their homes within a 72-hour period. In 2018, the number of children outside the home never dropped below 167, with a monthly average of 180 throughout that year.

A woman seated at a desk speaks in a microphone
Kara Griffin, Crow Wing County Community Services division manager, shares the latest statistics on out-of-home placements of children in the county prompted by social services intervention during the March 15, 2022, committee of the whole meeting. Numbers show the county is experiencing a seven-year low and is on track to be nearly $1 million below budget in 2022.
Screenshot / Chelsey Perkins
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BRAINERD — The number of Crow Wing County children living outside the home due to social services intervention is at its lowest point in nearly seven years.

Kara Griffin, community services division manager, presented statistics to county commissioners last month showing a total of 113 youths in out-of-home placements as of February, the smallest monthly figure since September 2015. And Griffin said during her March 15 presentation just one child had thus far been placed outside the home in 2022.

“For as long as I’ve been reporting to the board, that has not been the case,” Griffin said. “And that youth entered due to their own mental health needs.”

Griffin estimated a more typical year-to-date figure would be 20 to 30 children, and she compared the one placement this year to a time in 2016 or 2017 when 18 youths were removed from their homes within a 72-hour period. In 2018, the number of children outside the home never dropped below 167, with a monthly average of 180 throughout that year.

In 2021, the average was 137 children in a given month and the county spent $3,628,872, which was about $911,000 below the budget set for out-of-home placements. Although early in the year, trends so far point to 2022 as another with below-budget spending and even more money saved.

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Taking into account outside sources of revenue, such as state and federal grants, net spending on out-of-home placements dropped each of the last three years. In 2018, $4.15 million in county tax dollars was spent — $1.42 million more than last year.

What’s driving down not only the number of children in care but also the amount of money Crow Wing County is spending? Griffin attributed the improvements to various programs implemented over the last five to six years focused on early intervention and prevention work.

“While we continued needing to be reactionary to child protection, we were asking for a leap of faith (in 2016) to increase our prevention and intervention — as well as asking our team to continue to manage two to three times the size of caseloads across the state and continue to tread water with child protection,” Griffin said. “ … So that is making a difference.”

Children may be removed from the home for any number of reasons. These include protection from abuse, neglect or parental substance use; the mental health needs of a child; or because of juvenile delinquency.

Reports of potential child protection cases, which are screened daily to determine whether intervention must occur by law, remained steady in 2020 and 2021. Griffin noted this contradicts the perception that school closures and other impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic led to fewer reports. And while reports remained steady, the number of cases escalated to the assessment stage dropped from 242 in 2020 to 185 in 2021.

Griffin noted the statute outlining when assessments should occur has not changed and the decrease in 2021 was another sign of successful efforts to intervene early with families and prevent out-of-home placements.

Intakes for children’s mental health or child welfare — the latter of which can be prompted by truancy, concerns with minor parents, delinquency or general services requests including crisis nursery or help with parenting skills — did see a decrease in 2021, from 838 in 2020 to 658 last year.

But within this combined decrease, Griffin said requests for children’s mental health services are on the rise. This year, community services hired two social workers focused on children’s mental health to target family preservation in that population.

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One of the ways the county intervenes is through the Collaborative Intensive Bridging Services model, which targets children either at risk of or identified as in need of placement in a residential setting due to serious mental health concerns. The four-phase program begins with systemic family therapy while the child remains in the home, and if providers see improvements, residential placement may no longer be needed.

“It’s very important that we have parents on board and engaged and involved. We rely heavily on their engagement with the therapist,” Griffin said. “We work with the school, we work with a county case manager, if there’s an individual therapist — all of the providers continue to be intact and really wrap around this family. The therapist meets with the family two to three times a week.”

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If needed, the second phase would see the child placed outside of the home for 30-45 days while the parents continued in therapy, followed by reunification and ongoing maintenance for a total of four to six months of work. Thus far, county social workers and partners haven’t needed to move to these phases, however. A total of 31 Crow Wing County families have participated in the intensive program since 2019, and none of the children moved onto residential placements.

Griffin said the success of this work shows the county should continue it next year, despite the grant dollars supporting it coming to an end later this year. And she made a financial case for the County Board agreeing to continue funding intensive bridging services: while residential placement for one child can cost about $45,000 for six months on the low end — with a more realistic estimate nearing $80,000 — the maximum cost for serving 12 families in a year would be about $90,000 in total. Griffin said this cost would likely be closer to $12,000 to $15,000 in a year when Medicare or Medicaid reimbursements are part of the consideration.

County Administrator Tim Houle said one could view the issue through a financial lens only and agree continuing the work would make the best sense, but it’s about more than money.

“Set aside the funds for just a second and think about the kid. Are we going to create a better citizen … by taking them out of their home and sending them to another community to receive these services, or are we going to create a better citizen by keeping them with their family and their community and bring(ing) the services to them?” Houle said. “ … I would tell you with a high degree of confidence that there is a high number of these that would have ended up in residential placement.”

Commissioner Paul Koering, participating in the meeting remotely from his Florida residence, likened it to efforts to keep senior citizens in their homes.

“I think it goes to the same thing as Grandma Jones — trying to keep Grandma Jones in her house with some home health care as long as possible instead of going into a nursing home would be cost-effective, too,” Koering said. “I think this is kind of on the same order. It makes total sense to me.”

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After Griffin ran through several other programs focused on early intervention and prevention, Commissioner Steve Barrows thanked community services employees for their dedication.

“I think it’s outstanding how you’re using these investments that the board is making to make them work as well as you have and I certainly recognize that,” Barrows said. “I know that we all knock on wood — but that’s the best we’ll ever get is knocking on wood anyway — so seeing the results last year and what we’re looking at this year so far, thank you very much. We appreciate it and all your staff should know we appreciate it.”

Houle reminded commissioners working in child protection can be volatile and emotionally taxing.

“It’s the biggest crisis of their lives oftentimes. So it’s just a tough, tough environment to work in,” Houle said. “I get the chance to go sit with the staff and look at the professionalism and the quality of work that they do and the care that they put into the work that they do. That extends to the system. Judges who care makes a difference. Attorneys who care makes a difference. Social workers who care makes a difference.”

Interested in foster care?

Griffin said the county is always in search of more households willing to provide foster care, whether it be on an on-call shelter basis, for crisis situations of three days or less or as a more permanent solution.

She said the county can work with those interested in providing foster care to ensure their preferences and comfort levels are honored, such as caring for youths younger than their own children or of the same gender.

The most difficult foster home providers to find are those willing to house teenagers along with children in need of a specialized therapeutic setting due to negative behaviors or significant trauma.

For more information on providing foster care for children, contact Griffin of Crow Wing County at kara.griffin@crowwing.us or at 218-824-1159.

CHELSEY PERKINS, community editor, may be reached at 218-855-5874 or chelsey.perkins@brainerddispatch.com . Follow on Twitter at twitter.com/DispatchChelsey .

Related Topics: CROW WING COUNTYCROW WING COUNTY BOARDGOVERNMENT AND POLITICSCENTERPIECE
Chelsey Perkins is the community editor of the Brainerd Dispatch. A lakes area native, Perkins joined the Dispatch staff in 2014. She is the Crow Wing County government beat reporter and the producer and primary host of the "Brainerd Dispatch Minute" podcast.
Reach her at chelsey.perkins@brainerddispatch.com or at 218-855-5874 and find @DispatchChelsey on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.
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