Wright County is straining under the pressures of a growing demand for child protection services.
“We’ve seen an exponential increase in our caseload,” says Jami Goodrum Schwartz, the county’s health and human services director.
Children’s program costs, of which foster care represents the largest component, have increased by more than $2 million to $8,045,000 — a 35 percent increase in the last five years — without a corresponding increase in state funding, according to county authorities.
Child maltreatment reports are up by nearly 32 percent in the same time period.
The Wright County Board added five new social workers in 2016 for child protection services and another five staffers this year, with half the additional hours devoted to children’s services. The department currently has 25 child protection staff members.
“Even with that increase in staff, we still see the need for four or five additional child protection workers,” Schwartz said. “We’re stretched really thin.”
County officials cite three key factors that have contributed to the growing need for child protection services:
• There is a lower threshold for what constitutes a report to child protection, based on newer standards, a product of a governor’s task force, Schwartz said;
• The county has a younger demographic than some other counties in the state, with more young parents;
• There is an increase in drug abuse among parents, and in Wright County the primary drug problem has been methamphetamine and not opioids, said Jessica Nelson, family intervention services supervisor for the county Health and Human Services Department.
There are 81 foster care homes in the county, which officials say is not enough. It is particularly hard finding homes for teenage boys.
“We’re hiring a position in 2018 to work primarily on recruiting foster care families,” said Schwartz.
In the meantime, child care workers have a jammed caseload.
“We need at least five new staff[ers] to best meet the needs of these children,” she said.
And there is great concern about financial cuts, based on national reports that there may be a reduction in federal aid to social service programs that could affect the county, Schwartz said.
While the data show that Wright County social workers are responding quickly to reports of maltreatment of children, it has taken its toll on staffers.
According to the county health and human services’ annual report, “Wright County is experiencing staff burnout and turnover. This is a trend we are seeing all over the state and nation.”
Wright County Commissioner Christine Husom noted that the rise in child protection referrals has increased the caseload for both the county attorney’s office and protection workers.
“That’s something that’s concerning,” Husom said. “We want to keep the kids safe, and we want to do everything to ensure that.”
Commissioner Darek Vetsch said the county’s health and human services workers “really struggle to keep on top of the demand for investigations.”
The state recently began requiring protection workers to make face-to-face contact within 24 hours of a child when there is an allegation indicating substantial child endangerment or sexual abuse. Social workers are going out on weekends and holidays, Vetsch said.
“It’s for a good cause. I wouldn’t want to a leave a child in neglect a second longer,” he said.