Upward trend in Crow Wing County child out-of-home placements slows
County officials point to positive results from prevention efforts, including a number of initiatives meant to identify children and families most at risk for becoming involved in child protection.
Waving a magic wand won’t make the problems leading to removal of children from their homes go away, but county officials are optimistic prevention efforts are having an impact.
As of November, the number of Crow Wing County children in out-of-home placements remains at a three-year low, from a peak of 195 in November 2017 down to 137 last month. Children are removed from their homes for a variety of reasons: parental or juvenile substance abuse, domestic violence, physical or sexual abuse, neglect, juvenile criminal behavior and mental health concerns. A steep increase in the number of children facing these circumstances in recent years not only raised concerns for county officials, it’s also to blame for a precipitous climb in expenses ultimately covered by taxpayers.
“We’re not going to eliminate this. I wish we could wave a magic wand and make it all go away. We’re not,” said County Administrator Tim Houle at the committee of the whole meeting Tuesday, Dec. 17. “The trending is what was most concerning. It was going in the wrong direction. And so we wanted to try to get that curve to stop going up, and right now it appears that it is not going up as rapidly.”
If circumstances require removal from the home, Community Services Division Manager Kara Griffin said the goal is to find a placement that’s the least disruptive and costly. Recruitment for more local foster homes is part of this focus, and the county added 22 homes this year for a total of 91 homes.
But preventing the separation of families in the first place is the primary driver of a number of initiatives social workers, public health nurses and probation officers are undertaking, Griffin said. These include the establishment of a social worker focused on working with children entering the juvenile justice system, an increase in family home visiting by public health nurses, and a pilot project seeking to expand collaborative efforts in addressing children’s mental health.
“Society is living in a bubble about what is actually happening in our community and so the work is so important, so needed,” Houle said. “That’s why you come, that’s why we’re here. If that’s not God’s work, I don’t know what is.”
Avoiding juvenile detention
One of the initiatives in which statistics appear to support a positive impact is the Crossover Youth Practice Model, or the assignment of a social worker to work with juveniles entering the criminal justice system and their families. The program gets its name because it seeks to address the needs of youths who are at risk of “crossing over” between the child welfare and juvenile delinquency systems.
Corrections Manager Krista Jones told county commissioners the model is leading to much earlier intervention to learn what needs these children and their families have.
“If a child is taken by law enforcement into detention, probation is not involved yet. That crossover worker gets in there right away and tries to look at what those kids’ needs are,” Jones said. “Whether it’s a chemical use assessment, a psychological evaluation, what’s going on with the family — a number of different factors. … So I think that has made a difference at least in our area, because we kind of come in at the end of things. When we’re intervening earlier and getting that family and that child services, at that point it is going to make a difference down the line for the agents when they’re finally working with them.”
Community services first gained county board approval to hire an additional social worker for the program in 2016. Griffin said just before the program began, 43 youths were in juvenile detention at a cost of nearly $200,000. Those numbers declined to 31 two years later. In 2019, the program served 25 youths at risk of entering detention, and just seven went on to do so at a cost of about $16,000.
“That’s turned out to be a very good investment, and you can see the return,” Houle said.
Family home visits
Another area with increased focus and staffing is family home visiting. Homes including pregnant women, infants and children up to age 6 may be referred for this service, which can include education, support and referral to community resources based on individual needs. Topics addressed include breastfeeding, car seats, growth and development, home safety, parenting skills, effects of substance use and more.
Griffin said between January and October of this year, 310 families were referred to the program, and of those, 275 were at risk for child protection. The team completed 192 home visits in that time frame, and of those who worked with a public health nurse through the program, none required implementing out-of-home placement after six months.
“Family home visiting is evidenced based, and we know that that really does make a difference,” Griffin said.
Looking ahead, the addition of two program specialists in community services for 2020 means ramping up another program seeking to make a dent in out-of-home placements: child welfare case management. This means county workers would seek to identify families who may not meet the threshold for child protection, but some prevention work might keep them from ever getting there.
“If we get an intake that doesn’t meet the threshold but we know that if that family doesn’t get healthier, we’re going to get a report next week or next month,” Griffin said. “Having those workers to immediately go out, sometimes it’s just connecting families with resources. Sometimes it’s poverty that’s putting them at risk, so getting them connected with employment.”
Also highlighted Tuesday was the county’s work with Collaborative Intensive Bridging Services, which seeks to combine in-home therapy and residential placement for severely emotionally disturbed children. Crow Wing County is piloting a modified version of the program, which takes residential facilities out of the equation and instead places these children in local group homes or therapeutic foster homes.
In a phone interview Wednesday, Griffin said the idea behind this change is to keep these children in their communities, even during an out-of-home placement.
“Kids are remaining within their own community. They’re still in the same school, working with the same service providers and are closer to their parents or their guardians,” Griffin said. “ …
We think it will help that youth with their comfort level and to keep them in their own community.”
Griffin said other counties are watching to see what kind of results Crow Wing County has with the program. One family received the services this year. Jones said she’s confident the child, who’s on probation, would’ve been sent to a residential facility without the services. Griffin’s goal is to serve eight to 10 families in 2020.
Interested in foster care?
For more information on providing foster care for children, contact Kara Griffin of Crow Wing County at email@example.com or at 218-824-1159.
Griffin said the county is particularly seeking those willing to provide respite housing, which covers the first few days of a child’s unexpected removal from a home until a more permanent solution is determined.
CHELSEY PERKINS may be reached at 218-855-5874 or firstname.lastname@example.org . Follow on Twitter at twitter.com/DispatchChelsey .