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Program could deter child abuse cases

WILLMAR -- Every year Kandiyohi County Family Services receives about 800 reports of suspected child abuse.

The phone calls typically come from family, neighbors, school or medical officials who suspect children may be abused, citing everything from children being dirty, underfed and subject to verbal assaults to reports of suspicious injuries.

"They have concerns about kids," said Kathy Nelson, Kandiyohi County Family Services supervisor who oversees child welfare issues.

But of the 800 reports typically reviewed each year, about one-third meet the state's definition of child abuse and undergo a vigorous investigation.

Two-thirds -- about 400 reports -- are "screened out" and dismissed, Nelson said.

But that doesn't mean those 400 cases are void of troubles, she said during a recent report to the Kandiyohi County Board of Commissioners.

Even though the legal threshold of abuse isn't met those cases, Nelson said many of those families experience poverty, mental health issues, chemical dependency and domestic violence that could eventually lead to children being harmed.

Participation in a state program could help prevent that.

At Nelson's recommendation, the commissioners agreed last week to participate in the Parent Support Outreach Program, with $40,000 in annual funding coming from the state Department of Human Services. The program's services will be targeted to families who have been the subject of reports for possible abuse but were screened out.

The four-year program is set to begin shortly and run through 2016.

The county will contract with Heartland Community Action Agency to provide services to families that choose to participate.

"I think it's a good program," said Nelson, adding that it has the potential to prevent families from coming to the county "in a crisis mode" by providing counseling and intervention services when red flags are first waved.

"I'm pleased that the state is offering this program," said Family Services Director Jay Kieft.

Commissioner Harlan Madsen said the state has "tripped over dollars to save 50 cents" in recent years by making cuts to family services. He said programs like this can be a "huge return on the investment."

Nelson said families who have been screened out for any abuse but who have issues with poverty, domestic abuse, mental illness or chemical dependency will be invited to participate in the voluntary program.

She said the program has been successful in other counties. Under the terms of the grant, Kandiyohi County would be expected to work with at least 40 families this year.

Carolyn Lange

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

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