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Human Services to be cut $436,000

By Jeffrey Pieters

jpieters@postbulletin.com

On the eve of a new budget year, Mower County’s Human Services Department has learned it will be taking a $436,000 hit.

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services announced late last week it will cease reimbursing states — which in turn reimburse counties — for the costs of providing child welfare and child protective services. The cut is part of the 2005 Deficit Reduction Act, a collection of spending cuts that the federal government is imposing gradually.

The decision now to cut child protection spending next year forces Minnesota counties, including Mower, to do a last-minute budget reshuffling to preserve the federal- and state-mandated service.

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"It probably couldn’t come at a worse time for us," said Bruce Henricks, director of Mower County Human Services.

Long term, it forces counties to consider whether to raise property taxes to preserve all of its current services or cut other, non-mandated human services while keeping taxes down.

The $436,000 cut is the first wave of a series of federal human-services cuts that will amount to nearly $850,000 for Mower County by the time it is through, Henricks said.

At any given time, about 60 Mower County children are in foster-care placements, Henricks said. With funding cuts, that number likely will rise, as higher levels of funding are what allow social workers the time to serve families by helping them address their problems to staying together.

Children "probably will wind up in foster homes for longer periods of time," Henricks said. "It’s never good for kids. ... It’s moving the system back about 20 years, to an emergency service."

In Olmsted County, which stands to lose about $1.3 million — or about one-fifth of its child-protection budget — the child-protection program has won national praise for reducing costs while achieving better outcomes.

Olmsted reduced its rate of recidivism — repeat occurrences of maltreatment within one year of the first occurrence — from 14.1 percent of cases to 2.1 percent. The federal guideline is 6.1 percent.

The program was featured in Time magazine, but its ongoing performance is now jeopardized by financial concerns.

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"It’s a pretty big hit, and it takes the feds out of doing pretty much anything when it comes to child protection," said Paul Fleissner, Olmsted County’s director of community services.

"You’re talking about pulling out of the system that’s taking care of our most vulnerable population — our kids," Fleissner said. "I find that unconscionable."

Steele County will lose $90,000 to $100,000, said Kelly Harder, who oversees social services there.

The funding cut likely will force Steele to cut social programs focused on prevention and early intervention, Harder said.

The effective date of the cuts is March 3. The government will take public comments on it through Feb. 4.

Comments may be mailed to: Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services, Department of Health and Human Services, Attention: CMS-2237-IFC, P.O. Box 8016, Baltimore, Md., 21244-8106.

Comments may be send electronically by visiting www.cms.hhs.gov/eRulemaking. Click on the link "Submit electronic comments on CMS regulations with an open comment period."

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