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Blue Earth County seeks more children's mental health workers

Free Press - 1/9/2020

Jan. 9--MANKATO -- Blue Earth County needs more social workers to address children's mental health cases.

County officials say they're working caseloads almost twice as much as state guidelines recommend, even after adding another case worker last year. And children's mental health cases have significantly increased over the past five years.

That puts the county in a difficult position, as the cases often require far more effort and attention than other types of social work. For example, county officials say they often need to include the family as part of those mental health cases. And sometimes the cases involve treatment either in other parts of Minnesota or out of state.

Traditionally a loss leader among county governments, Blue Earth County's children's mental health division has operated within budget during the past few years due to streamlining some services. At the same time, more people are requesting county help to deal with severe issues such as abuse, trauma or addiction.

The Blue Earth County Board approved a new children's mental health case worker as part of its 2019 budget. That brought the department total to five full-time workers and one part-timer.

"We're probably the only county that's saying, 'Well, we're hiring another children's mental health worker,'" said Julie Stevermer, a human services supervisor overseeing children's mental health work.

Yet the county didn't decrease its workload, despite the extra body. Case managers deal with an average of 28 open cases at a time, according to county officials. That's almost twice as many as state guidelines, which recommend a caseload of 15 for social workers.

In 2014, Blue Earth County workers had 109 total children's mental health cases. The county's caseload has annually grown, with workers addressing 161 cases in 2019.

All of that shows a clear need for more workers, according to county officials.

"I think we could keep hiring, and I think you'll hear stories that show we have a community need," Blue Earth County Human Services Director Phil Claussen said.

Workers have to be somewhat flexible in dealing with case crises among youth, who are already dealing with hormone changes throughout their childhoods. The county serves children as young as 3 years old and as old as 18, though teens in foster care can receive county help up to age 21.

And no case is quite the same. One worker recently took a 15-year-old to a treatment center for her fourth time to address substance abuse issues. Another is trying to help a young man in his teens suffering from severe mental health issues and suicidal tendencies. The teen has bounced around from a specialized school in Austin to a facility in South Dakota, and recently stole a car shortly after he was transported home to the Mankato area.

Angie Youngerberg, the county's human services director of business operations, said children's mental health work can be seen as a preventive measure to save future taxpayer dollars.

"These kids age into adulthood," she said. "Some of them don't need services into adulthood for whatever reason."

At least one county commissioner agrees. Colleen Landkamer said she supported spending more money on children's mental health to cut down on future county human service costs.

"You pay now or you pay later," she said. "When you think about it, it could save money in corrections and the sheriff's office."

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