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County woes (04/04/2012)
By Frances Edstrom

Winona County just paid $14,500 for a consultant, Dave Unmacht, to make a general review of the county’s Community Services consolidation efforts, including technical and managerial strengths, operating systems, intake, financial, and child protection services and provide recommendations for moving forward.

In the summary of his review, Mr. Unmacht wrote: “The headline in the local paper on December 14, 2011 said, ‘Winona County is on the edge.’ This was an unfortunate headline as the findings in the review did not support the conclusion.”

That headline appeared in the Winona Post, and although we weren’t named, I feel we must remark upon his use of our headline as a way to blame the media for what ails Winona County.

Had Mr. Unmacht read the article over which the headline appeared he would have found that even if he doesn’t think Winona County was (is?) on the edge, the members of the Human Services Advisory Board who spoke to the County Board on December 13, 2011, absolutely thought so.

The Advisory Board had been denied the opportunity to meet directly with the County Board, so they took their story to the board at its regular meeting on that Tuesday morning. In a prepared statement, members Matt Vetter and Advisory Board Chair Ruth Charles told the board that they feared for the safety of vulnerable Winona County citizens, especially children, because of the unsettled nature of Human Services Dept. without a director and with reduced staffing levels. This, added to increased instances of children in poverty and danger because their legal caretakers, or parents, were high [perhaps on plant food], the statement said, was putting Winona County on the edge.

“Do you want to see Winona on the front page of the newspaper about the death of a child?” asked Matt Vetter.

One of the Advisory Board’s major complaints stemmed from a state review of the county’s child protective services in 2011, one that showed case loads were too high and there were problems with response times. It was an unsatisfactory review that resulted in the county actually losing out on a portion of state funding for the program because of its findings. 

Unmacht’s study referenced nine documents he’d examined (which didn’t include the state child protection report), which were coupled with 14 staff interviews, and a handful of meetings with county commissioners and other regional or state officials. 

Unmacht’s report said little of the child protection review, merely that its timing resulted in “a lack of clarity in the follow-up and understanding of the outcomes and results.” He said child protection can be stressful and complex, and new staff members may help the efforts.

Mr. Unmacht does not indicate in his report that he read the statement from the Human Services Advisory Committee, either, which leads us to wonder how deep a study was done of the department.

Unmacht concludes, “Winona County is feeling the pressure and it is not a stretch to conclude that the staff did feel ‘saturated’ at times. However, by all measures including most notably the input from the people most affected — the staff — Winona County is heading in the right direction, making good strides, and moving forward.”

Does this mean that our headline in December was inaccurate, quoting Human Services Advisory Board members who were feeling disenfranchised and who sincerely feared for vulnerable Winona County citizens? The answer is no, and blaming us for the county’s woes is not only unfair, but deflects attention from problems that are real. 


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