The following guest editorial was written by Commissioner Patrick Boyle, chair of the Health and Human Services Committee of the St. Louis County Board. It was originally published in the Duluth News Tribune on September 12, 2016.
What we're seeing is a heartbreaking situation. There’s been a dramatic increase in the number of reports of child maltreatment – we’re facing a 45 percent increase compared to just two years ago – while at the same time the state is requiring more documentation than ever before. In other words, with caseloads at an all-time high, our child protection workers are being expected to spend a great percentage of their time filling out paperwork, rather than engaging with families in a way that could make a meaningful difference.
It’s also an expensive situation. Many of those maltreatment reports result in children being removed from their homes to ensure their safety. With record numbers of children in foster care for longer periods of time until they can be safely reunited with a parent, the County’s out-of-home placement costs are also at an all-time high. More than 10 percent of our property tax levy is now going to fund out-of-home placements.
As frustrating as this situation is, I am very proud of the St. Louis County Board and how it is responding. Earlier this summer, my fellow commissioners and I sent a strong and unanimous message that protecting children is a top priority. Together we approved adding 20 new staff positions in Child Protection.
The added positions alone won't solve the problem. We need a collaborative approach from our state and federal partners to address the opioid epidemic – the abuse of and addiction to heroin and prescription pain killers, mental health crisis and other issues that are tearing our families apart. These are complex problems that take parents a long time to work through.
Additionally, we are seeing an increase in the number of families living below the poverty level. While our population has held relatively steady, we are seeing a growing number of residents below the poverty line. The stresses that come with poverty – the constant worry about bills, the difficult decisions of which necessities must be set aside, the lack of reliable transportation, the instability in housing, the food insecurity, the strain on physical and mental health – can be more than some families can bear.
Children need a loving, stable environment in order to thrive and avoid generational cycles of poverty. They and their families need support and services to heal from historical and intergenerational trauma, as well. And we want to help them. We want to work on the prevention side. If we can work with families and assist them with accessing resources, building skills, and broadening support systems we not only strengthen families, but we save the cost of out of home placements, and the long term treatment costs of children who grow into adults without the safety and stability to thrive as parents and community members.
We're definitely not alone or unique in our struggles. Counties throughout the state are facing similar challenges, but the legislature has yet to offer a statewide solution. While the state has enacted numerous guidelines and requirements we must follow, it hasn’t provided sufficient funding to cover the staffing costs and preventive services to do this very important work. This has left a $13 million and growing burden on County property tax payers. We rank 49th out of 50 (only Ohio is worse) for least amount of state funding to help with out-of-home placement costs.
The County Board on Tuesday will approve its maximum property tax levy for next year. Unfortunately despite our best efforts to trim budgets and minimize the impact to tax payers, there’s going to be a levy increase that’s larger than we would like, due in large part to our out-of-home placement costs. But we cannot ignore the needs of our youngest and most vulnerable citizens. Children are our future and we must do what we can to protect them. To turn our backs is not an option.