No decision from county yet
by CHRIS ROGERS
Before synthetic drugs like "plant food" became popular in 2010, Winona County child protection workers handled a little over 100 reports of child abuse and neglect in a year. Then numerous parents became addicted to the potent drugs. Some bought and sold drugs in front of their children. Some left their young children alone for many hours at a time, and reports of child abuse and neglect increased by 550 percent, from 130 in 2009 to 929 in 2011. That spike never subsided, though, and receiving more than 700 reports of child abuse and neglect each year has become the "new normal" for local child welfare workers.
Ever since then, whether the county has enough staff in its Child Protection Unit to handle the "new normal" has been periodically up for debate, though county leaders have not always addressed the issue or made definite decisions. This spring, last fall, and in recent years, citizens and some county staff have urged the County Board to give the department more staff. Upper-level county staff members have sometimes echoed those calls, and at other times, been reluctant to answer when County Board members and reporters ask: "Does Winona County have enough staff to protect children?"
The repeated requests for more child protection staff in recent years have come amid a period of staffing cuts. Since 2010, the County Board has been trying to cut staff and taxes, not add new positions and payroll expenses. Under that policy, the county has reduced its staff significantly and many county departments now function with fewer staff members than they did five years ago.
The latest call for more positions was made this February, when members of the Citizens' Review Panel, a group of local citizen volunteers who provide independent oversight of the county's Child Protection Unit, and unit supervisor Sharon Summers told the County Board that the unit had too few staff members to handle the increased number of child protection cases. Citizens' Review Panel member Laurie Watson acknowledged the predicament the state legislature has put Minnesota counties in by reducing state funding for child protection. Nevertheless, the County Board has a duty to staff the unit properly, she said. "As funding has plummeted, case loads have soared," Watson told the board. "We are concerned that this imbalance places unrealistic expectations on workers and significantly weakens child protection services in our community." The county recently added one new position to the seven-person unit, but the citizens and Summers said that more positions were needed. "We think that's a wonderful start, but perhaps that doesn't fully address the needs," Watson advised the board. Summers has requested two additional positions.
Despite concerns about being short-staffed, the Child Protection Unit is ostensibly doing a good job of meeting state-mandated deadlines for responding to child abuse reports and other metrics for successful child protection services. That is a recent phenomenon. Last year, the unit made a big turnaround in its performance, meeting state standards in the majority of cases. In previous years, the county failed to respond properly in so many child protection cases that the state government required the county complete a performance improvement plan and undergo added state oversight to ensure those goals were met.
Since this winter, child protection workers have been regularly working overtime to handle all of their cases, and Summers warned that they might burn out. Working with families that have been accused of child abuse and neglect is stressful and challenging, Summer said, and working overtime every week in such a job is not sustainable. "We can't expect staff to be working this many hours constantly. That is one of the reasons we've had some turnover," she stated.
Two people left their jobs in the Child Protection Unit this spring, leaving the seven-person unit briefly shorthanded by two positions. As of late last month, the county had filled one of those vacancies and was still seeking job applicants for the other. With the addition of the recently-created child protection position, the unit has returned to its historically normal staffing level — seven people — and should have eight workers total in the near future. However, it will likely take months before the new hires can handle full workloads.
New state funding approved
Starting next summer, Winona County will have new state funding for child protection staff. Next summer and in the summer of 2017, the state government will give out $23 million each year to Minnesota counties' child protection programs. That $23 million total will be divided among the state's 87 counties depending on the size of each county's child population and the number of child protection reports in each county. Every county is guaranteed to get at least $75,000, which would be enough to fund one new child protection worker in Winona County, but likely not two. Counties must use the new state money to fund new positions, not existing positions.
The new funding was signed into law on May 22, before the Winona Post interviewed county commissioners and received email statements from Interim County Administrator Maureen Holte for this story.
It is unclear whether the state legislature will continue that funding after 2017.
Some County Board members, in particular commissioner Marcia Ward, have been wary of adding staff positions supported by short-term grant funding. When grant funding expires, the county is left to either fund the positions itself after all, or cut the program.
Commissioners comfortable with Holte making the call
In the three months since the Citizens Review Panel's plea in March, the County Board has not discussed whether the Child Protection Unit's historically normal staffing levels are enough to deal with the "new normal" number of child abuse and neglect reports. Community Services Director Beth Wilms, and Wilms' superior, who is Summers' superior, and Personnel Director and Interim County Administrator Maureen Holte, who is Wilms' superior, have not brought Summers' request before the County Board, and County Board members have not raised the issue themselves.
Wilms declined interview requests last month to discuss the Child Protection Unit's staffing levels and how the county was responding to Summers' and the Citizens Review Panel's requests.
Wilms has the dual role of advocating for her department's needs and controlling its budget. She also answers to Holte and the County Board. In the past, she has both advocated for adding child protection staff and been noncommittal on whether that is needed. When citizens urged the County Board to hire more child protection staff in 2011, commissioner Marcia Ward asked Wilms point blank: "Do we have the capacity to meet the needs?" Wilms responded, "Can we get back to you on that?" During budgeting discussions last fall, Wilms urged the County Board to add staff to handle the increase in child protection cases. "It is not a blip," Wilms said of the increased caseloads. "We are at capacity." Commissioner Jim Pomeroy spoke in favor of adding staff. Commissioner Steve Jacob spoke against it. The County Board did not grant the request.
Holte did not grant recent interview requests either, but in emailed statements said that she will decide whether more staff are needed. Holte stated that she is considering Summers' request and that she has not made a decision. Summers has been talking to Holte about her concerns for over six months. It is unclear when a decision will be made. At the latest, the county does need to set a draft budget by the end of September that will lay out how much the unit will spend on staff next year.
"If they need additional staff, I'm for it," said commissioner Jim Pomeroy. However, he said that he had not heard that the Community Services Department was asking for more staff. "My understanding is that they [county staff] had thought about the situation and thought that adding one would be appropriate at the time," he stated. Pomeroy said that properly staffing the unit is extremely important, but that it makes sense for the county to wait and see how the unit does with eight workers. "I think that as we see how this works out, it'll be determined pretty early whether what is being done is adequate to fulfill their mission," he explained.
When asked if the Child Protection Unit needs more staff, commissioner Steve Jacob responded, "I'm sure they could utilize more staff." So could every county department, he said. However, in order to meet the community's needs with fewer resources, the county has invested in time-saving technology, while gradually reducing staffing levels, he stated. "In order to be fair with other departments, how do you start giving more personnel to one department and tell the other departments, 'You can't have any more personnel?'" He asked. "It can cause discord within the organization. Then, those who are really working diligently within their department — it's almost offensive to them. They're really working hard and having to go the extra mile." He said it could the change attitude in those departments to: "Maybe we need to make more noise so that we get more employees."
"I understand that from an administrative standpoint they have a bigger picture and a bigger budget that they need to be concerned about, and I am advocating for the needs of my staff, and those two things can be in conflict. I get that," Summers stated in an interview. "But when I look at how long this has been happening, I'm very worried. Staff can't sustain this. I hear people talk about how they can't keep doing this. The pressure keeps mounting."
Jacob and Pomeroy both said that if the unit falls behind on meeting state-mandated deadlines and performance standards, that would be a key sign that the unit does need more staff. "If we fall short, that sends up a red flag that cross training isn't working, technology isn't working, the only solution is more employees," Jacob said.
"The last time I talked with Beth [Wilms] it was all in process and it's being taken care of," said commissioner Marie Kovecsi when asked about whether the Child Protection Unit needs more staff. Kovecsi stated that before she could comment personally on the issue, she would want to see recent statistics on the number of child protection cases, the severity of the cases, and whether newly passed state laws will require child protection workers to spend more time filling out paperwork. When asked if the County Board needs to discuss the issue, Kovecsi said that it will come up during the 2016 budgeting process. If Holte and Wilms do not request additional staff in their proposed budget, Kovecsi said she would ask why. "If it's not in there, I think people will ask, 'Do we need more people in there. Are we OK on this, and is it safe?'" she said.
Jacob said that he was comfortable with Holte determining whether more staff are needed. "If there's a need or concern, Maureen [Holte] sits in both administration and personnel [roles], and she can certainly alert the County Board that something needs to be done there."
Keep reading the Winona Post for more on this story.