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Commissioner follows footsteps of family service workers for a day

As part of a role-playing scenario of a man seeking public financial assistance, Kandiyohi County Commissioner Jim Butterfield fills out an application Friday for food support, cash assistance and health care programs. The experience was part of a "shadowing" experience in the family services department for Butterfield. Tribune photo by Carolyn Lange

WILLMAR -- After accepting a hefty information packet that included advisories and messages in bold print with words like "must" and "required," Kandiyohi County Commissioner Jim Butterfield sat in the waiting room of the county Health and Human Services Building on Friday and filled out a 10-page combined application form for food support, cash assistance and health care programs.

As part of a role-playing exercise, Butterfield filled out the lengthy application under the scenario of being a 56-year old man on social security making $300 a month in a part-time job.

After his application was completed he met with a financial eligibility worker, where every question on the application was reviewed in a face-to-face interview that -- in a real situation -- would easily last an hour.

If Butterfield were indeed applying for assistance, he would have also been asked to provide documents, like a birth certificate, bank statement, car title, utility bills and housing rental receipts, to verify his financial situation.

There are numerous "checks and balances" in the system to help prevent fraud, said Butterfield.

Under the best circumstances, he would receive food assistance by Monday morning. Approval for the other benefits would take more time.

"Did you receive a check when you walked out?" asked family services director Jay Kieft, with a grin.

It's a common perception, he said, that people come to the family services department, fill out a quick form and leave with money in their pockets.

Shattering some of the common perceptions about what goes on in the family services department is why Kieft invites the Kandiyohi County Commissioners to shadow workers in his department.

If the Commissioners have accurate information, then they can share that information with their constituents, said Kieft.

As the newest commissioner, it was Butterfield's turn this week.

Friday was actually Butterfield's second shadow experience in the department. "He's gotten a pretty broad splash," said Kieft, adding that Butterfield was more than eager to spend time watching his department in action.

Butterfield said he wished everyone in the county had an opportunity to see exactly what happens with family services, including the challenges of managing state and federal mandates.

"It opened my eyes," he said, adding that the biggest myth that was busted for him was learning that a majority of financial assistance "goes to somebody's mother in a nursing home."

And with the number of 65-year-old baby boomers surging, elderly will continue to make up the majority of welfare costs.

Besides walking through the experience of applying for public assistance, Butterfield also sat in a morning team meeting of social workers who review reports of potential child protection and vulnerable adult cases.

After the details of each case were presented, department supervisor Corrine Torkelson asked for the case workers' opinions. "Thoughts?" she said, looking around the table.

As they weighed in, a consensus was reached with each case on whether to proceed with an investigation or not.

"Those women really wring their hands," said Butterfield, empathizing with the difficult decisions the county workers must make each day.

He also sat in on a group session of the county alcohol and drug assessment team that discussed details of individuals in that case load and what treatment action, if any, needed to be taken.

He also had one-on-one sessions with other department heads to glean information that will be useful when votes need to be taken in the board room.

"In order to make a good, comprehensive decision you need to know what's going on," said Butterfield.

Carolyn Lange

A reporter for 35 years, Carolyn Lange covers regional news with the West Central Tribune.

(320) 894-9750