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Is child care, child protection getting lost in political dust?

A child at the Mahube Head Start satellite daycare, located at the DLCCC in Detroit Lakes, helps build a gingerbread house. Kaysey Price/Tribune

Saying it was "reckless and foolish" to cut $505 million in projected spending, Gov. Mark Dayton vetoed the health and human services budget bill last week.

Now the Republican-controlled Legislature and the DFL governor will have to compromise on a new bill to avoid at least a partial government shutdown.

And when that happens, the state's youngest and most vulnerable residents should be kept in mind, said Jim Koppel, assistant commissioner for Children and Family Services for the Minnesota Department of Human Services.

"There are a couple areas I work in — child care and child protection — that have been kind of overlooked over the years that are now kind of in dire straits," he said in an interview. "These are two key pieces of our child advocacy system that have been cut over the years and are in pretty rough shape now."

Subsidized child care — designed to help the working poor — has been subject to a number of budget cuts since 2003, when the state had a big financial problem to solve,

"A lot of those cuts fell on those programs," Koppel said. "We have been losing the equivalent of a child care provider a day for 12 years." Outside the larger cities, most child care providers are family-based, and that's where the decline has been.

"The only growth in child care has been (daycare) centers in larger cities," he said. "In rural Minnesota family child care is the main source of child care. The issue is we haven't raised our rate — our payment rate has gone down significantly over the years."

He's talking about Basic Sliding Fee (part of the state's Child Care Assistance Program) which makes child care more affordable by reducing the monthly costs for about 8,500 families across the state.

In Becker County, there were 152 kids in the Child Care Assistance Program last year. Otter Tail County had 139 kids in the program, Wadena County had 65 children in it and Todd County had 33 kids in it.

If the money was there, more struggling families would use the program.

Basic Sliding Fee covers infants and children up to age 12 for the hours parents need to work. But with inflation, the state's funding for Basic Sliding Fee has actually dropped by 25 percent since 2003.

The funding may not be growing, but demand is: The waiting list for Basic Sliding Fee has grown to include more than 6,000 families, and the number of families that get help with daycare expenses fell by 3,700 — about half of those families are in outstate Minnesota.

Basic Sliding Fee covers infants and children up to age 12 for the hours parents need to work. When a child care provider accepts a family participating in Child Care Assistance, the state pays a portion of the child care costs and the family pays an income-based co-payment.

Today, the maximum payment only covers the rates charged by about 30 percent of child care providers. That means many providers that accept Child Care Assistance families do so at a loss, or require parents to make up the difference on top of their existing co-payments.

About 4,100 providers are paid each month for serving children on the Child Care Assistance Program.

Koppel said the lack of state funding makes it much harder for low-income parents to find affordable care. Reimbursement rates that better reflect actual costs would give families more options to find the care that meets their needs.

Today, the Minnesota program is mainly funded by a federal block grant that provides $125 million a year for the Basic Sliding Fee program, Koppel said.

Dayton has proposed spending $157 million through 2021 to help rebuild the Child Care Assistance Program. "The greatest increase goes to rural Minnesota and to family providers," Koppel said. Dayton estimated about $47 million will be saved over the same time period by improving the integrity of the system.

Every other state in the region has improved their programs to meet federal standards, Koppel said. "Even Mississippi has conformed — we (Minnesota) have the most to do because we're so far behind ... if we don't do it, we risk losing federal funding."

Koppel acknowledges the ideological divide between Democrats and Republicans in Minnesota, but says "there are some core policies that have to be addressed, that have drifted so long, they have to be the center of attention, they can no longer fall by the wayside."

Child protection is another issue of special concern to Koppel.

"Child protection caseloads are way up," he said. He said an additional $20 million in new child protection funding is needed, specifically to help children age 5 and under be placed in permanent homes as fast as possible, through foster care and adoption.

The proposal would expand the Northstar Care for Children Program, which launched two years ago, and is designed to help children age 6 and older in foster care find permanent homes.

"This is certainly a big need," he said. "Especially since we have such a surge in cases."

In Otter Tail County, the number of screened-in child maltreatment reports rose by 82 percent from 2013 to 2016 — from 213 cases to 388 cases, according to information from the state. Fourteen percent of Otter Tail County children live in poverty.

The number in Clay County nearly doubled over the same period, from 254 child abuse cases to 504 cases. The child poverty rate there is 13 percent.

The number in Mahnomen County rose by 134 percent from 2013 to 2016, from 14 cases to 34 cases. The child poverty rate there is 34 percent.

In Hubbard County, the number rose from 119 cases to 263 cases in the same time period, a 121 percent hike.The child poverty rate there is 18 percent.

Todd County went from 89 cases to 95 cases, a 7 percent increase.The child poverty rate there is 19 percent.

In Wadena County, the number of child abuse cases during that period actually dropped 21 percent, from 135 cases to 106 cases.The child poverty rate there is 20 percent.

In Becker County, the number of screened-in child maltreatment reports also decreased, from 247 in 2013 to 238 cases in 2016. Seventeen percent of Becker County children live in poverty.

Statewide, the number of child maltreatment reports soared from about 20,000 to nearly 31,000 from 2013 to 2016.

Had Dayton approved the health and human services budget, the Legislature would have served up a $500 million cut to health and human services programs.

"That's a big cut — and we have a $1.5 billion surplus," Koppel said. "If we're looking at being strategic at where we spend our money, certainly these two programs (child care and child protection) deserve attention."

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