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Better options needed for keeping children safe amid state mandates

WILLMAR -- With less money and more mandates, better solutions are needed to help protect children who are living in abusive homes, according to Kathy Nelson, a supervisor with Kandiyohi County Family Services.

"We need to come up with solutions in child welfare," Nelson said during a recent presentation to the Kandiyohi County Board of Commissioners. Nelson highlighted the challenges social workers face to work within existing laws and budgets to do what's best for children.

Last year saw an increase in the number of children and families needing services, and the severity of the injuries some children suffered was noticeable, Nelson said.

Last year there were two shaken baby cases, which is one less than the previous seven years combined -- the period when Nelson has supervised that area.

Last year the county spent $1,665,183 on out-of-home placements, putting 111 children in foster care, which was actually a slight decrease from 2008. But Nelson said there was an increase in the number of large sibling groups that needed to be taken from their parents' homes and put into foster care.

There were 12 petitions last year to terminate parental rights, compared to seven in 2008. The county's adoption supervisor is "running to find homes," Nelson said.

There were 78 families that received child protective services, compared to 54 in 2008. These are cases in which the county intervenes in some way -- including out-of-home placement if necessary -- because there is some sort of neglect or abuse.

The county spent $343,596 for family-based preventative services that helped 95 families. In 2008 there were 85 families that received that service. These services include such things as counseling and teaching family management skills to help prevent a situation from progressing to neglect or abuse.

Nelson said there were 46 cases opened at the request of parents, indicating that families are "struggling" and seeking assistance.

In 2009 there were four cases of delinquency of children under the age of 10. Typically there are one or two, she said.

Laws are usually made with the intentions of helping children, often following a high-profile case with a specific scenario. But Nelson said when mandates are created to fit a narrow scope, some laws "don't necessarily lead to good social work."

She gave the example of a young boy in foster care who was frightened every time the social worker visited him at the home because he was afraid he would be taken away. The social worker used creative means to visit with the child at a neutral local, like a park, and made separate visits to the foster home when the child wasn't home.

While the state approved of the method because it was therapeutically best for the child, a state audit indicated the county wasn't meeting the mandate of visiting the child in the foster home.

With a high turnover rate in the field, Nelson said social workers pursue the career out of a sincere desire to protect children and their families.

The stress of the job can be challenging and the county usually hires a new social worker every year because the typical length of stay on the job is two to three years.

But she said the "energy and compassion" of the county social workers, support from the rest of the agency and well-established relationships with professionals in the community and state helps them to be creative and apply best-practice strategies that ultimately help children and families.

"We have quality services in this county," she said.

Carolyn Lange

A reporter for more than 30 years, Carolyn Lange covers regional news with the West Central Tribune.

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