Wilkin Co. Family Services juggles increasing cases

Wilkin County out-of-home placements by the last of the year from 2011-2020 have increased. 

There are 18 children in out-of-home placements in Wilkin County, Minnesota, as of Dec. 31, 2020, said Dave Sayler, county Human Services director.

In 2011, there were nine out-of-home placements by the last of the year, and the number has continued to rise. In December 2019, there was a high of 19 children in out-of-home placements, he said.

“The three highest issues that we are dealing with being a border county — we have drugs, going back and forth … alcohol is a major problem in our communities, and I would say the third is neglect,” Sayler said.

Wilkin County is primely positioned in what is called the interstate corridors, close to where I-94 and I-29 converge in Fargo-Moorhead, Sayler said. The interstate corridors are where they expect drugs are being brought in, he said.

The increase in drug abuse is congruent with the year-end report from Carl Thunem, Wilkin County attorney. Drug crimes have not only been increasing, they have been more severe, Daily News previously reported. Thunem said nearly half of meth-related cases in 2020 involved needles, and heroin and fentanyl cases increased from previous years.

“It’s an exceedingly high rate, and you can see there’s been a large scale increase over time, which has, frankly, been a geometric increase over the last three years,” Thunem said previously of the increase in felonies, gross misdemeanors and misdemeanors in the county.

Wilkin County numbers have proportionately been higher than the metro areas of the state in the last couple years, Sayler said. 2019 held the greatest disparity; the county had 19.3 children per 1,000 county residents placed in out-of-home care while Hennepin County, Minnesota, which encompasses Minneapolis and Minnetonka, had just 9.8 children per 1,000 county residents. Ramsey County, which encompasses St. Paul, had 11.1 children per 1,000 county residents.

“It’s not only Wilkin County, you look at Clay, Traverse, Grant, Stevens, Otter Tail, Becker. All these other counties really close to us, their number of kids per 1,000 have gone up dramatically,” Sayler said.

Sayler, like Thunem, thinks part of the reason for the increase in out-of-home-placements is due to local law enforcement being younger, newer to the community and perhaps more vigilant.

“Law enforcement isn’t involved in ‘somebody was yelling at their child at Econofoods in Breckenridge.’ We’re not talking about your reports that are not real serious. When law enforcement is involved, it’s much more serious and there may be individuals arrested, and when they’re arrested, we need to find a place for the kids to go,” Sayler said.

Not all cases that come across his desk are cut and dry cases of neglect either, Sayler said. Sometimes, the lines are blurred and some of the incidents seem like they could happen to any parent, he said.

For instance, they recently dealt with a case of a 3-year-old girl who took the family dog for a walk early in the morning while her father was asleep, Social Services Supervisor Becky Tripp said. The door was locked, but the toddler opened it and closed it behind her, all without waking her father. She was found walking along the Red River and reported by community members. The girl was non-verbal, but they were able to find her father because the dog was chipped, Tripp said.

“This is a great community,” Sayler said. “Somebody sees something like that and they report it.”

They consider an incident like that a success story, Sayler said, because the community cared enough to see something that didn’t look quite right and take action.

Family Services were also able to adopt out five children, Tripp said, another major success.

“The kids that we adopted out are doing fabulous,” Tripp said. “And we have two adoptions pending that are going to be really good.”

They have several youth who are about to be aged-out of the system that are living independently and working, a source of pride for the team. Even a couple instances of Family Services being able to “break the cycle” are enough to make their tough job worth it, Sayler said.

In 2020, a large percentage of children were able to be placed with family, which is the best case scenario, Sayler said.

More out-of-home placements doesn’t necessarily mean higher expenses, he said. In 2020, family services spent $506,425 on out-of-home placements for 18 children. By comparison, in 2011, $486,759 was spent on just nine out-of-home placements.

The costs each year are variable, and depend on the type and severity of an out-of-home placement, Sayler said. For instance, a year with fewer out-of-home placements may cost more than a record-high year if there are children with special needs who require placement in group homes or specialized foster homes.

“The whole point is to try and place children in the least restrictive setting,” Sayler said. “If you can place them with the grandparents, or uncles and aunts, or a close family friend, it’s less traumatic for the child, and it’s helpful that they’re placed with people that they know and love.”

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