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St. Louis County social workers rally for more staff

AFSCME Local 66 march at the Virginia courthouse on Wednesday to bring attention to the staffing issues at St. Louis County social services. David Swenson photo

News from the police blotter and courtrooms shows methamphetamine and heroin raking St. Louis County from Duluth to the Iron Range and beyond.

County officials say mental health issues and drugs have helped fill the county jail to capacity, including many parents of young children.

And St. Louis County social services workers tasked with mitigating all these problems say they are overwhelmed and understaffed — especially for child protection cases where children's lives may be in danger in unsafe homes.

On Wednesday, many of those county workers, members of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees Local 66, used their lunch hour to hold informational rallies in front of county offices in Virginia and Hibbing to increase public awareness of a lack of staffing, especially child protection workers.

"I've been a child protection worker since 1985, and I've never seen it like this,'' said Dennis Frazier, a county employee in Virginia and president of AFSCME Local 66. "We're trying to let the public know that if they don't put some pressure on the County Board and on county administration, we aren't going to solve this problem."

Similar rallies are planned in Duluth.

County officials concede there's a problem. For the first six months of 2016, reports of child maltreatment increased 15 percent over last year and 45 percent since 2014. As a flood of new at-risk kids come into the system, the number who actually are seen by a caseworker is going down.

"We've added staff. But we haven't added staff fast enough,'' said Frank Jewell, county commissioner representing central Duluth.

The county employees are echoing the same issues cited by Dave Lee, the man hired to head St. Louis County's Public Health and Social Services department in April. Just weeks after taking the job, however, Lee resigned, deciding to go back to the same post in Carlton County that he had held for 11 years.

"There's a lot of different things. There's not one explanation ... but I need to be in a place where I can do my best work, where I have the resources," Lee told the News Tribune in June.

Lee said that he was somewhat surprised upon taking the job to find that "resources in St. Louis County are extremely strained. There needs to be a larger investment in services — basically, to put it bluntly, a larger investment in staff."

20 new positions proposed

Gov. Mark Dayton called a special child protection task force in 2014, state lawmakers approved $53 million for the state's 87 counties to add more child protection workers aimed at deciding which kids were most at risk and getting them out of harm's way quickly.

The new state money was earmarked only for child support staffing — $23 million in 2015 and $29 million in 2016, including $786,400 to St. Louis County in 2015. But officials with AFSCME Council 5 say there are signs that the actual number of caseworkers on the street hasn't increased much in some counties.

"We're trying to look across the state to see how that money was spent ... whether it was spent for increased staff as it was intended,'' said Jennifer Mundt, spokeswoman for AFSCME Council 5. "We found Hennepin County's caseload is still at 18 to 1. We haven't received St. Louis County's information yet."

Frazier said many new workers hired in recent months appear to have backfilled for transfers or retirements but that there's been little actual increase in the number of staff responding to at-risk children.

"My caseload has been as high as 60. It's come down since then. There has been some improvement. But it's not enough,'' Frazier said.

Linnea Mirsch, the county's budget guru who also is serving as interim director of the Public Health and Human Services department, said the county used its share of the state money to add 10 positions in July 2015 and said the current caseload is about 14.5 per caseworker. But she conceded it's difficult to measure how many caseworkers are available at any one time, because turnover is so high in the department. And she noted increased reporting requirements have added to the backlog of uncleared cases.

On Tuesday, Mirsch will ask county commissioners to approve another 20 new child protection positions, including 16 caseworkers and four supervisors, using remaing funds from the state's fiscal 2016 allocation

If the board agrees, "we're going to bring them in yet this year,'' Mirsch said.

Big budget, levy hike in works

Mirsch told county commissioners at a July 19 budget workshop that the county is going to have to spend at least $8.1 million more in 2017 for social services alone. That amount would raise the county levy about 7 percent — not including any increase in other areas of county government like health care costs for all employees.

Throw in those areas and the county now is looking at an $11.6 million budget hike and a nearly 10 percent tax levy hike. That comes after a zero percent increase in 2016.

County officials concede they are short of meeting state goals and national averages in several categories.

The state's goal for caseworker visits with children is 95 percent. But St. Louis County is at only 68 percent. The state's goal for timely responses to allegations of maltreatment is 100 percent. St. Louis County manages only 68 to 88 percent, according to the July budget presentation documents. Nationally, the number of foster children returned to their parents who have to come back into the system is less than 10 percent. In St. Louis County, 23 percent of those kids come back into foster care.

"It's become clear to everyone on the board that we're going to have to do something more,'' Jewell said. "The (2017) budget is going to include an increase in staffing. A significant increase."

Chris Dahlberg, county commissioner representing western Duluth, said commissioners have no choice but to shore up the child protection system.

"I've always said that taking care of the most vulnerable in our community, old and young, is about the most important function of county government. At the end of the day, I'm going to support adding staff to get to where we need to be,'' Dahlberg said. "But the question remains, could we be making cuts somewhere else? ... It's going to be presented to us as a crisis and that we have no options. But I think taxpayers would want us to look at what we could do to keep this levy increase that's coming from getting out of control."

Patrick Boyle, county commissioner representing eastern Duluth, said the county needs to spend more money up front to help families under stress so kids can stay in their home. That will save millions in the long run of trying to find foster or other housing, he said.

St. Louis County's cost of paying for out-of-home placement for kids in unsafe homes is expected to hit $13.5 million next year, nearly $1 out of every $10 in property taxes paid. "It's the single largest problem we face as a County Board,'' Boyle said. "It's a budget breaker. We don't get any help from the state. And I don't think we've seen the top. It's going to keep going up."