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Harmony Visitation in Willmar, Minn., says it could save $29K with implementation of computer program

WILLMAR -- A new computer program is helping the Harmony Visitation Center save time and money but with the number of clients and visits increasing, finances are still tight.

Elaine Bolland, director of the center that provides a safe, neutral setting for children to visit with non-custodial parents, told the Kandiyohi County Board of Commissioners on Tuesday that from January to March there were 191 visits scheduled.

In the first two months of this quarter there are already 168 visits scheduled with 85 percent of them being county Family Services Department cases.

"Our family service numbers are up so much," said Bolland.

Kandiyohi County contracts with the center for the service.

"It's an unprecedented increase," said Michelle Tejeda, from Harmony Visitation Center, which is a program of Safe Avenues, based in Willmar.

But Tejeda said the numbers don't tell the whole story.

"These cases are so different than what we are used to seeing," she said, comparing the cases to an onion where layer after layer of physical abuse, verbal abuse, sexual abuse, chemical dependency, mental illness is pulled away.

Oftentimes "kids are in the middle" of the onion and it "brings tears to your eyes."

She said these complicated cases are no longer unusual. "It's become the norm."

But at a time when the needs for the visitation center have increased, the available funds have decreased.

The center's budget should be OK through May, but past grants are being trimmed and others may not be reapproved at all and that could make 2013 a difficult budget year.

She said, for example, Harmony had been receiving a $35,000 grant from Pact for Families. But that type of grant -- a Local Collaborative Time Study grant -- has shrunk and the maximum Harmony can apply for is $20,000 for a two-year period.

"That is going to be hurting us," said Bolland.

In an attempt to do more with less, the center has recently implemented an innovative computer scheduling program that is being used in Florida parent-child visitation centers.

By asking the parents to take ownership in the process and schedule visits through a computer or cell phone on the new program, at least 100 hours of work a month can be saved by an employee.

Because scheduling is complex and involves numerous professionals and available space, Bolland said 95 percent of the time of an employee had been dedicated to scheduling. Much of that will now be eliminated with the program.

It's also estimated 40 hours a month can be saved in logging phone calls and visits, 20 hours can be saved in sending documents to professionals, another 20 hours saved by collecting data for required reports and 10 hours saved in client record letters.

Tejeda estimates that $2,475 can be saved each month by using the new technology, resulting in annual savings of $29,000.

Money to purchase the new program was obtained through the Safe Avenues gala fundraiser.

Since the program went live Oct. 1, there have been a few glitches to work out, but Tejeda said it's "working wonderfully" and will provide long-term savings for the center.

"It almost sounds too good to be true," said Commissioner Harlan Madsen.

Tejeda said contacts she has made in Florida have told her it's been the "most transformative thing they've done for their program."

The center has also been fielding calls from visitation centers in other states with questions about how to fund and implement the program.

Madsen said the partnership the county has with the Harmony Visitation Center is valuable and that its work must continue. "We'll figure out some way to move ahead," he said.

Bolland said they do hear occasional complaints from parents who say the program is too restrictive.

"We're not there for the parents," she said. "We're there for the kids."

Bolland said kids have a right to see their parents and that when kids do spend time with parents, it breaks the "barriers" in important relationships that can change the lives of the children.

In other business Tuesday:

- The commissioners unanimously approved an amended resolution that makes beaches at all county parks tobacco-free.

- The 2013 budget for the Green Lake Sanitary Sewer and Water District was approved, including a 2 percent increase to the water and sewer usage fee rates. The base fees will remain unchanged.

- The commissioners will meet at 1 p.m. Tuesday in the community room of the Health and Human Services building for a "phase 2" planning session for restructuring the way the county operates.

- The commissioners set a hearing time of 10:30 a.m. Dec. 18 to conclude a $25,000 Community Development Block Grant program that provided training and outreach to recent low- to moderate-income Latino immigrants interested in entrepreneurship in the county. The program provided 170 hours of classroom training and 479 hours of individual technical assistance.

- Because of a conflict with the Association of Minnesota Counties' annual conference, the date of the commissioners' next regular meeting has been changed to 10 a.m. Dec. 11. They will conduct the Truth-in-Taxation hearing at 6 p.m. that day.

Carolyn Lange

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

(320) 894-9750