Out-of-home placement costs had to be addressed.

It was just more than 15 years ago that the Polk County Board decided that something had to change. The cost of “out of home placements” had gone through the roof and the prediction was that it would keep right on going.

    Some background: Troubled and or abused juveniles are placed in out of home placement facilities when their behavior gets them into trouble or when their homes are determined to be unsafe and/or lacking appropriate parenting. The daily per diem cost for these placements, depending on the services prescribed, can range up to more than $300 a day.

    The cost for out of placements had grown to $2.26 million in 1996. By 1997, it had gone up to $2.4 million. And some were suggesting that a $3 million figure was looming. The costs had been on the rise from $1.2 million in 1993, to $1.3 million in 1994, and to $1.6 million in 1996.

    With most of the cost of out of home placements coming directly from county tax dollars, it was a major budget concern. The direction from commissioners to social services administration and lead supervisors was that something had to be done to get these costs under control.

Brainstorm sessions
    Before he left the agency in 1997, then Social Services Director Bill Kurpius-Brock had involved people from the other agencies that have a role in dealing with and determining out of home placements in addressing the issue —County Attorney, Court Administration, Tri-County Community Corrections, Public Health, Sheriff’s Office, Northwestern Mental Health, public defenders, County Coordinator, and school administrators. From those sessions came recommendations to provide assessments, referrals, screenings, interventions, and other practices… along with the people needed to perform them. After receiving initial support from the County Board, that support was soon reconsidered and dropped due to cost.

    Then in February 2000 with Kent Johnson as social services director and then Administrative Assistant Bill Green making the pitch, another plan was presented. It asked authority to hire five “family-based service providers” (FBSP) who would work directly with the problem kids and their parents in home situations. These providers wouldn’t have to be trained social workers… just good people who had a strong interest in helping kids grow into productive citizens.

Uphill battle
    When you go before the County Board with a proposal to hire five more county employees without a guarantee there would be a return on investment, your chances aren’t very good. Commissioners are by nature tightwads. Their constituents — county taxpayers — demand it and commissioners who have any hope of ever being re-elected have that message engrained in the minds.

    In his presentation, Green, who was one of those people who could sell stink to a skunk, rolled out the whole program. He not only claimed that it would work, he guaranteed that it would and offered to put his job on the line if it didn’t. In the true role of a social worker, Green made the strong point that it would also go a long way toward getting kids (and their parents) onto a better path.

    In a leap of faith, the board voted 5-0 to allow the hiring of five FBSPs. Approval came with one condition… that there be a review of results after six months and that without any sign of improvement the whole idea would be trashed.

Passed the test
    With the five FBSPs quickly selected, trained, and on the job, out of home placement costs for 2000 decreased to $1.6 million. And that was accomplished with the plan in place for about the last six months of the year. By 2001 after a full year of the program, the cost was down to $1.06 million… and it has stayed in that cost range ever since.

    What is amazing is that the about $1 million a year expense total — compared to the $2.4 million in 1998 — has held through almost 15 years of inflation.
    The annual cost has been below $1 million twice during this 15-year period ($961,739 in 2007 and $989,841 in 2010). The cost for the just completed 2012 was $1,036,042.

    One of conclusions that can be drawn from the accounting above is that county government works best when there is a team approach in which staff is allowed to suggest ways to do things better and at less cost while those in the governing body have the courage to believe in them… to take that leap of faith.

     Thoughts expressed in this column are those of the author and are not necessarily a reflection of the opinions of the other members of the Polk County Board.