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Formula puts child protection funds at risk

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A new formula allocating funds for the protection of children and vulnerable adults has Hubbard County officials concerned it could cause more government intrusion into families' lives and result in fewer dollars to counties that take a more cautious approach.

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The Social Services Act of 1970 apportioned money for states to deal with socioeconomic issues involving children and adults.

Minnesota gets $85 million to divide between its counties for those services.

"It's very flexible dollars," said Hubbard County Social Services Director Daryl Bessler. "It's not committed to a particular group so now they're calling it Vulnerable Children and Adults. Now you're supposed to focus on child maltreatment and adult protection cases and situations. That's why they call it that and that's where they expect you to spend the money."

In the past the funds have been doled out based on historical data, how much each county was allocated the previous year, taking into consideration population factors.

Those criteria have been replaced by population factors and reporting trends, whether children and vulnerable adults' complaints of abuse have been investigated and are on the rise.

Hubbard County under this formula will get $22,000 fewer dollars because the department has taken a more conservative approach to reporting.

Instead of sending caseworkers to jump on every allegation of abuse, potentially causing upheaval to families, the department has taken a more thoughtful approach, rigorously screening families and adults for potential issues beforehand. That way the authorities do not have to be called into every situation, Bessler believes.

"Allegations are made and not all allegations prove to be valid in our screening criteria," he said.

"I have some rather conservative views about government's role and don't think government should be in everybody's life."

Other socioeconomic factors involved such as children and adults living in poverty or poor graduation rates, are more closely tied to dysfunctional homes where protection may be needed.

But the new criteria has tempted some counties to "game the system" in hopes of getting more funding, Bessler fears.

"I'm concerned that the reporting, you take the reports and you investigate them, it increases your chances of getting this money," Bessler objected. "And that brings intrusion into the lives of families that maybe they would have been screened out before.

"There's things that we have to do, screening criteria, but when you start tying funding to things I think there's a potential to see increases because you get the money if you do this," Bessler added. And I don't know if that's healthy for everyone."

What has happened is an upheaval in that funding. Pennington County will lose 65 percent of its funds; Red Lake County loses 73 percent; Roseau and Lake of the Woods counties lose 61 percent while Wright County gains 196 percent. Hubbard County's 6 percent decrease pales in comparison.

"Some of the smaller counties are really getting knocked," Bessler said. "There's an issue of fairness. I mean each county is expected to provide child protection and adult protection services. You take this kind of money away from small counties, it impacts them pretty severely."

Because the dollars can be spent so flexibly, counties can be tempted to use them to bolster dwindling budgets.

"You can use it to pay for out of home placements, you can use it to provide case management, you can use it to provide in-home services for kids, for adults, it's just really flexible and that isn't always the case in our world of funding," Bessler said.

This funding formula came out of the special session legislators rushed through last summer after a government shutdown.

"They basically tried to slow implementation of this formula down to prevent significant gyrations either way, getting a lot o money or losing a lot. Tried to more or less phase it in over a period of time and I think was going to allow opportunities to come up with other factors than just these two."

And Bessler worries the more counties compete for scarcer dollars, the more tempted they'll be to "game the system."

But it's also misleading to the public if a county were to suffer from a faux epidemic of child abuse. It just won't be Hubbard County.

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Sarah Smith is the outdoors editor. She covers Hubbard County, courts and breaking news.

(218) 732-3364
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