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PACE Program addresses racial disparity while saving county funds

Study of program's first decade estimates $2 million savings, but shows more work to be done

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A cost comparison included in a report by Foster America senior fellow Mathangi Swaminathan shows the per-child costs of child-protective services, compared to the PACE program in Olmsted County.
Foster America
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ROCHESTER — An effort to address racial disparities linked to child protection services in Olmsted County resulted in an estimated $2 million savings in its first decade, but advocates say the benefits go beyond the financial.

A study by Foster America senior fellow Mathangi Swaminathan recently highlighted the outcomes of the first decade of the county’s Parents and Children Excel (PACE) Program, looking at the local effort to address racial disparities connected to child-protection services.

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Started in 2010 as a partnership between the county and Family Service Rochester, PACE seeks to provide a different route to address concerns that frequently arise from missed school or other issues that most often lead to county intervention.

The program works with Rochester Public Schools to identify students of color who are at risk of being referred to child protective services, with the potential of removal from their home or other action. PACE social workers reach out to the families to offer help to address a variety of concerns and improve the relationship between the family and school in an effort to improve educational outcomes.

“The county had been trying a lot of different small and large initiatives, but nothing had been done to know what the impact was,” Swaminathan said of the reasoning behind the study.

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In her report, Swaminathan points to the continuing needs for the PACE program, which serves children between ages 5 and 12, along with their families.

“Between 2016 and 2019, African American children in Olmsted County, Minnesota, were twice as likely as white children to be reported to child protection, and multiracial children were seven times as likely as white children to enter out-of-home care,” she reports.

Vera Ndumbe, the PACE program supervisor, said that and other data in the report point to the need for continued efforts.

“We have acknowledged there is disproportionality in the education system, and we are striving and working diligently to find unique programs like this to address the disproportionately,” she said.

The report also shows the effort is making an impact.

Swaminathan found that the program, which is voluntary for families, helped reduce short-term entry rates into the child welfare system by 16 percent, when compared to similar children who didn’t participate in the program. Long-term entry rates were reduced by 7 percent.

Another key component to the study is better understanding how the elementary school students end up in the sights of child protection services.

Swaminathan found that some form of neglect is the top reason for a child to be referred to Olmsted County’s child-protection system, regardless of race, but rates were higher for black and multiracial children.

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Additionally, she reports at least 60% of educational neglect cases – often seen as missed school – were among non-white students, even though 65% students were white.

Such data is seen as fueling racial disparities in child-protection programs.

“There is a lot of national conversation around whether education neglect should even be part of child protection,” Swaminathan said.

While her report doesn’t include long-term educational data regarding the PACE program’s impact on student outcomes, Swaminathan said she believes her work helped address the need for future data sharing.

Julie Ruzek, Rochester Public Schools’ coordinator of family and community engagement, and Olmsted County Director of Child and Family Services Amy Rauchwarter agreed, pointing to continued discussions.

“This evaluation is the beginning,” Rauchwarter said, noting access to graduation rates and other data regarding PACE participants will be beneficial.

Ruzek said beyond the data sharing efforts, a key part of the PACE program and resulting study has been the opening of communication between the school district and county, since they often engage the same families in different ways.

Ndumbe said one of the goals of the PACE social workers is to create a link between the family and schools to address attendance and other issues, not just for one student but the entire family.

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“If you address just one aspect in a home, you are likely not going to be successful,” she said.

Success is being seen.

Swaminathan’s study shows 605 students were diverted from standard child-protection services throughout a 10-year period, which is also where the estimated cost savings comes into play.

While the PACE program’s annual cost has tripled from its initial $175,000 budget, Swaminathan points out diversion efforts are more cost-effective that foster care or other protective services.

The average per-child cost of the PACE program is $2,000 to $3,000, with child-protective services typically costing $5,000 to $8,000 per child.

Rauchwarter said the PACE program currently works with approximately 400 students a year, up from 31 in 2010, so it’s good to see the study pointing to the benefits.

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A flowchart shows how decisions are made regarding whether a child can be part of the PACE program after being referred to child protective services.
Foster America

“In some ways it did reaffirm or confirm that we were having a positive impact, because that was our impression and certainly our intention,” she said.

However, she also said work continues to tweak the program by strengthening communication between the schools, families and social workers.

Ndumbe said that is an important part of the message.

“To me, as a person of color in a community like Rochester, it is new information that there are other barriers associated with parents struggling to send kids to school,” she said.

Randy Petersen joined the Post Bulletin in 2014 and became the local government reporter in 2017. An Elkton native, he's worked for a variety of Midwest papers as reporter, photographer and editor since graduating from Winona State University in 1996. Readers can reach Randy at 507-285-7709 or rpetersen@postbulletin.com.
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