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Counties face child protection cuts

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Counties face child protection cuts
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"The moral test of government is how it treats those who are in the dawn of life, the children; those who are in the twilight of life, the aged; and those who are in the shadow of life, the sick, the needy and the handicapped." -- Hubert H. Humphrey


April 1, 2009: That's the day child welfare services in Becker County could suffer a devastating loss in funding -- unless federal legislators have a change of heart.

Due to changes in the rules regarding Medical Assistance (M/A) funding that were made as part of the federal Deficit Reduction Act, counties across Minnesota will no longer receive aid for Child Welfare Targeted Case Management (CWTCM) through M/A.

"It (CWTCM funding) has been eliminated, but there's a moratorium on implementing the new M/A rules until April 1," said Donna Richgels, a social worker for Becker County who specializes in child protection cases.

Unless that moratorium is extended -- or Congress decides to relent -- Becker County stands to lose upwards of $300,000 in child protection funding each year, noted Nancy Nelson, director of Becker County Human Services.

"Back in 2003, we were receiving close to $500,000 from the federal government for child welfare targeted case management, through Medical Assistance," Nelson said.

Today, that funding has been nearly cut in half, and if the rule changes are implemented on April 1 as expected, it will be eliminated altogether.

What makes this loss of funding particularly disastrous, Richgels noted, is that the original intent of establishing the CWCTM program was to provide funding for protective services on behalf of abused and neglected children; children at risk of abuse or neglect; or those at risk of out-of-home placement.

"Every county in Minnesota will be impacted by this," Richgels said. "It's a huge reduction in funding for (the support and protection of) vulnerable children."

But for Becker County and others, where a higher-than-normal percentage of youth live at or below the poverty level, the impact will be particularly devastating, she added.

"Seventeen percent of our children (in Becker County) live in poverty," Nelson said, "and the rate of child abuse, neglect and out-of-home placement directly correlates to the rate of child poverty."

In other words, Richgels added, "Those counties with a higher percentage of child poverty will have a higher rate of abuse, neglect and out-of-home placement."

Those counties with a higher number of people living in poverty also have a smaller property tax base -- and in Minnesota, county human services departments draw the largest portion of their funding from local property taxes, said Nelson.

"So those counties with the greatest need (for child protection services)...have the least amount of resources available to meet those needs," Richgels said.

And if the federal government cuts its CWTCM funding to Becker County completely, the $300,000 loss in funding for these services will fall back on county property taxes.

"These services are still mandatory, which they should be," Richgels added. "There's something wrong with our country if we can't provide for the safety of its most vulnerable citizens -- our children.

Becker County has been fortunate, she added, because its citizens "have really made a commitment to the basic safety of kids."

Nelson also noted that the county board has been very supportive of child welfare services.

"We recently were able to add two part-time child protection intake workers," Nelson said, adding that the commissioners' approval of adding those positions sent a strong message that "yes, children are important and we'll give you what you need to keep them safe."

Those two part-time positions were badly needed, Richgels pointed out.

"Last year, we had almost 3,000 intakes (i.e., new cases) for child welfare," Nelson explained.

"We did not have enough staff to deal with the influx," Richgels added, noting that as a result, the existing staff was putting in "lots of extra hours. The stress was unbelievable."

Richgels also noted that there were two child fatalities and one near-fatality in 2007. "One (death) was clearly related to abuse and neglect -- the other is still being investigated," she continued. "The near fatality was also related to abuse and neglect."

With the current condition of the economy, both in Minnesota and nationwide, the number of people living at or below the poverty level doesn't seem destined to decrease anytime soon, Nelson noted.

In short, the loss of $300,000 in annual funding could have far-reaching consequences. Though it only accounts for about 5 percent of human services' $6 million overall budget, it will fall on the county to make up the difference.

"It's not a fair funding system," Richgels said, adding, "If the federal funding goes, we'll really be hurting."