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Fed budget will hurt Becker kids

It's a good thing for congressmen that kids can't vote.

Young people can't take revenge at the polls for being targeted to take the brunt of the cuts -- nearly $500,000 in Becker County alone -- expected from the recent "budget reconciliation" bill passed by Congress.

The budget bill, which passed on Feb. 1, will cut almost $40 billion over five years from funding for mandatory programs.

At this point, it's just a "wild, ballpark estimate," according to Human Services Director Matt Casey, but he told the county board Tuesday that Becker County Human Services is bracing for a $300,000 cut in child welfare case management, a $100,000 cut in children's mental health case management and a $75,000 cut in child support collections.

Casey said the child welfare cuts would have a "dramatic impact" on the funding that helps prevent abuse of Medicaid-enrolled children in the welfare system.

These funds support the staff that assess family needs, develop plans and provide direct services to kids at risk of maltreatment or out-of-home-placement.

The cuts to help pay for child support collections will cost the state $24 million a year, and have a "direct impact" on Minnesota counties because they all receive the federal incentives, Casey said. Uncollected child support hurts the kids and their families.

On the bright side, the White Earth Reservation has received federal funding to run its own child support enforcement program, which Casey said will take some of the financial burden off the county, since about a third of its cases are on the reservation.

Children's Initiative at risk

In more bad news for kids in Becker County, funding for the Becker County Children's Initiative -- and indeed, all such collaboratives across the state -- are also expected to take a funding hit, ranging from an estimated 13 percent for Becker County to perhaps 100 percent in some counties.

"The state said to expect 10 to 60 percent reductions," Children's Initiative contract administrator Cyndi Anderson said. But in some counties the collaborative may simply cease to function, because children must now be assessed by a county human services specialist, and some human services departments don't have the staff or money to do the job.

That's not the case in Becker County, where the human services department has really kicked in and gotten the job done, without extra help or funding, according to Anderson.

The Becker County collaborative received about $350,000 last year as reimbursement for qualifying work on behalf of children done by schools, juvenile probation and community health.

That money pays for a school counselor at schools in Detroit Lakes, Frazee-Vergas, Lake Park-Audubon, Pine Point and Circle of Life in White Earth village.

It pays for a full-time truancy worker for the Detroit Lakes School District, and part-time truancy workers at each of the other schools, Anderson said.

As a Moorhead program showed, such workers can boost graduation rates significantly, said Sharon Josephson, the congressional aide who runs U.S. Rep. Collin Peterson's Detroit Lakes office and who says the problem is throughout the Seventh District.

The Becker County Children's Initiative also contributes $10,000 a year for Early Childhood Family Education to school districts in Detroit Lakes, Lake Park-Audubon and Frazee-Vergas, and to the White Earth Head Start program.

It contributes $15,000 a year to the Partners in Parenting mentoring program for teens.

And it pays for universal contacts -- either by phone or in person -- with all families of newborns between 12 and 18 months through Community Health.

The idea is to catch any problems early on, when they are most treatable.

The collaborative also provides a small stipend to Parents Building Bridges, a parent support group.

"If the Children's Initiative isn't funding these programs, these programs may go away," Anderson said. "School districts can't afford these positions, but they're the first line of defense to keep kids from crisis."

An ounce of prevention...

Almost all the programs being cut are preventative in nature, and save money in the long run, Josephson said.

"We're talking about things like after-school programs, tutoring and intervention programs -- so kids can stay in their homes -- home visits, parenting programs to help young and struggling parents..."

After all, the kid who falls through the cracks can end up being an burden on society his or her whole life. When a family fails, it's the government that pays for foster care, juvenile detention and later, perhaps, prison.

"These programs really save a lot of money (because they are preventative)," Josephson said. "Now we'll have to spend three to four times as much to fix the crisis."

For more than 10 years, professionals in the schools, juvenile probation office and public health service have been able to refer at-risk children to the Children' Initiative, qualifying them for reimbursement funding.

But that all changed at the first of the year. Now only specialized workers with the county human services department can assess a child and determine that he or she is at "severe" risk of out-of-home placement and qualifies for the program. And they must be reassessed every six months.

That has put "tremendous pressure" human services, Anderson said, while dis-empowering everybody else, throwing a wrench into a system that had been working well.

The first quarter results won't come in until late April, but Anderson is worried. "Every indicator out there is that it will be a fairly dramatic change ... It will hurt and be difficult, but we can weather a 13 percent cut -- a 60 percent cut, however, compromises the entire integrity of the program."

The federal crackdown was due in part to misuse of the program by several other states, not Minnesota, Josephson said. The Bush Administration changed the rules on who could assess at-risk kids, and the program got wrapped up in the budget reconciliation process.

"One of the ways they were going to save money was by changing the rules," she said.