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Creative thinking helped Kandiyohi County continue needed services during pandemic

The Kandiyohi County Health and Human Services and Community Corrections departments changed how they do business due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The past several months have been challenging, but have also allowed for new ideas and ways of helping clients.

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As in-person appointments resume at the Kandiyohi County Health and Human Services building new health procedures have been put in place, including check-in desks right inside the lobby. Staff will man the desks during the day. Wednesday afternoon Laura Shoutz, from the University of Minnesota Extension office, helps out. Shelby Lindrud / West Central Tribune

WILLMAR — Six months ago it would have been unheard of for probation meetings or social service visits to be done over the phone or through a computer screen. Today, that is the new normal for many, including Kandiyohi County Community Corrections and Health and Human Services.

As COVID-19 began to spread and public services were drastically reduced or shut down altogether, it became imperative for essential programs to somehow continue their important work while at the same time keeping both staff and clients safe from the spread of the virus.

"Our staff has had to adjust quickly to changes and be creative with client needs," said HHS Director Jennie Lippert.

Both Lippert and Community Corrections Director TamiJo Lieberg spoke Tuesday at the meeting of the Kandiyohi County Board of Commissioners, sharing how their departments have reacted to the pandemic.

"Probationers we work with are under stress, vulnerable to relapse that can lead to bad choices," Lieberg said. "It is very important for us that we are following up with what is going on."

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Each department has gotten creative on how it meets with clients and continues offering needed programs. Telephone and computer video conferences have replaced many in-person meetings. At Community Corrections, instead of visiting a parolee inside their home, an officer has been doing curbside meetings.

"We never would have guessed this is how we were going to do probation," Lieberg said.

It has also been important to continue the cognitive behavioral skills programs, which assist those in the system with learning how to better cope and function in society. Probation officers continue to work on social skills with their clients, even if has to be over the computer. These support programs can help keep people from reoffending.

"To make sure they are still adjusting, providing support and checking on people on probation, to keep our community safe," Lieberg said.

Even if the meetings have just been through video conferencing, many of those in the Community Corrections system welcome the outreach.

"They are very grateful for the support they have received. They are happy to see (probation officers) show up at their doors," Lieberg said. "It gives them a little bit more support."

The Health and Human Services Department has relied heavily on waivers from the state, which have loosened restrictions on how many of the programs operate. When before a home visit may have been required, now a video conference works or there have been extensions or delays allowed to help keep people in the programs they need. Lippert is thankful the HHS waiver bill passed the Legislature and was signed into law by the governor before the session ended.

"It allows us to make adjustments to our work and protect staff and clients," Lippert said.

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In many HHS programs, there has a been a steady stream of new cases and clients. In children and adult protection, the county has seen an increase, which is a reverse of what is being seen statewide since children stopped going to school.

"More people in our county must be self-reporting or reporting for family members," Lippert said. "Which is a very good thing."

HHS does meet with some clients in person and has plans to restart in-person child care licensing and foster care application visits and the department could begin offering immunization clinics in August. Whenever staff members do have to meet a client in person, they have the needed personal protective equipment.

"We are trying to limit unnecessary exposure," Lippert said.

Each department is also trying to predict what the next several months are going to bring.

"COVID-19 will continue to affect our work, however it is unknown in what capacity," Lippert said. "Everyone is wondering what will the new normal will look like."

It is inevitable that in-person meetings and programming will have to restart. Already Community Corrections is gearing up for the resumption of court cases that were paused earlier this spring. There is nearly a three-month backlog, and Lieberg said her department will be working closely with the courts to try and move those cases through as efficiently as possible.

Even if things go back to normal, there could be processes and procedures that will stick around because they ended up being more efficient than the old way. For example, the ability to attend hearings or hold meetings remotely has drastically cut down on travel time for both staff and clients.

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"There are a lot of interesting things we are learning and finding ways to do business differently," Lieberg said.

The directors are grateful they have been able to continue offering important services while keeping staff safe.

"Throughout this transition we have maintained all of our staff, all of our programs and continue to serve all of our current and new clients," Lippert said.

Shelby Lindrud is a reporter with the West Central Tribune of Willmar. Her focus areas are arts and entertainment, agriculture, features writing and the Kandiyohi County Board.

She can be reached via email slindrud@wctrib.com or direct 320-214-4373.


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