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Child abuse takes toll on workers

The increase in number and severity of child protection cases in Becker County is taking a toll on child protection workers.

The county is starting to see higher turnover among child protection social workers.

High turnover in that area is something other counties have long dealt with. Human Services Director Nancy Nelson said it is typical of most county social service agencies to see new, inexperienced social workers take the child protection cases — and as they become more experienced, move to another job.

Becker County has been fortunate to have an experienced child protection team that bucked the trend, said child protection supervisor Donna Riggle.

But that may be changing. She told the County Board Tuesday that caseloads and job stress are becoming overwhelming.

The board approved the hiring of one new social worker, but another has resigned and Riggle expects more resignations to follow.

A proactive Human Services Department can make a big difference, Riggle said.

“We can be penny-wise and pound foolish or we can invest up-front,” she said. Child placement is an example, she added.

“With our child poverty rates, we should be in the bottom 20 percent of the state, but with our outcomes we are consistently in the top 10 percent, occasionally No. 1,” Riggle said.

 Investment up-front can save money down the road in jail, prison and human services costs.

Drug addiction is ruining families and destroying children, some of whom are born addicted to drugs, she said.

“We are working hard to prevent sending drug addicts to kindergarten in Becker County and we’re doing it efficiently,” Riggle said.

Either parents are getting off drugs or their children are being removed from their homes, she added.

Commissioner Larry Knutson said throwing money at a problem is not always the best solution.

“For 20 years all I’ve heard is throw more money at the system,” he said. “The argument that if we spend more money we’ll do better doesn’t wash with me, it really doesn’t.”

He followed up with a question to child protection and social services about why the caseloads are overwhelming. “Why are they leaving?” he asked.

Nelson said counties are mandated by the state and federal governments to handle cases and receive funding to do so.

Riggle said things are changing in Becker County and she remains hopeful. “I can manage the safety of children in Becker County. We can prevent them from being abused and neglected again to the point where they are so damaged as human being,” that they can’t go on to a productive life, she said.

But drug use is causing horrendous problems in the county right now, and Riggle would like to see more efforts put into enforcement of the drug laws. “Highway 10 is a conduit for drugs and there are a lot of them in Becker County,” she said.

The county has to decide if it wants to fight the forces undermining family life or give up and become one of those rural counties “full of poverty, full of unemployment and full of drugs,” Riggle said.

Knutson agreed that drugs are a problem. “We’ll have openings in Becker County and seven out of 10 of the applicants can’t pass the drug test, and these are people in the 20s and 30s — it’s just nuts,” he said.

Commissioner Barry Nelson voted for the new position, and to hire to fill the vacancy, if it is filled from within the department. But later he said he would like to see some direct caseload comparisons with other similarly sized counties and other counties in the area.

“Historically, our caseloads have been higher than surrounding counties,” Riggle noted.

Nelson, the department head, said the information would be provided. She was criticized for not budgeting for the position, but said, “I was told (during the budgeting process) to bring a zero (increase) budget and if positions needed replacing during the year to address it at that time.”

That puzzled commissioners. “I’m not sure where that came from,” said Commissioner Don Skarie. “That wasn’t from the board.”