County’s out-of-home care expenses ‘race northward’

by Richard Thomas

The number of children in out-of-home placements is increasing.
The number of children in out-of-home placements is increasing.

St. Louis County’s skyrocketing costs for placing children in foster care was a topic of discussion at the April 3 commissioners’ committee of the whole meeting. 
The committee was looking over a resolution approving fourth-quarter changes to the 2017 budget. “It looks to me like there is in the range of $4.7 million that is being transferred to out-of-home placement,” said Commissioner Frank Jewell. “So how much more was our out-of-home budget than we were figuring?”

County Administrator Kevin Gray said the numbers between 2017 and 2018 roll together, so the correct figure is “approximately $3 million in terms of out-of-home placements exceeding the original budget.”
Gray continued, “We’re more optimistic going into 2018. Quite frankly, candidly, I think the hope is to stabilize the number of kids that are in placement. I don’t know that we’ll see that decline. I do know that we’ve seen in the last approximately six years about a 70 percent increase in costs for out-of-home placements. So we’ve gone from literally the $10 million range to well over $17 million, and I think that number, apples to apples, is going to be well north of $18 million in 2018.”

Nationwide, around 437,500 children are in foster care, according to the the Department of Health and Human Services (fiscal year 2016 figure). Drug abuse by a parent is a factor in 34 percent of the cases.
Commissioner Beth Olson said there were 1,274 children in foster care in St. Louis County in 2017.
Commissioner Keith Nelson said, “I am not as optimistic as Administrator Gray on out-of-home placement. I think that number is going to continue to grow and it’s something that this board is going to continue to have to wrestle with, and I’ll keep both my fingers crossed and hope that that trend doesn’t continue.”

Said Jewell, “Does my memory serve me incorrectly that in the year I started, 2011, the out-of-home placement (budget) was $7 million?”
Gray said that figure might have been closer to $10 million, depending on what programs were included. 
Nelson said that when he joined the county board in 2003, “St. Louis County had the highest out-of-home placement number per capita in the United States. We wrestled that number down with some helps from the courts, and help from a lot of hard work put in, and I believe the low point was in that $7 million range. It might not have been reflected of each and every cost factor, but it was certainly the number that we as a board were using, and Commissioner Jewell is correct in that. But since then, we’ve just seen that number race northward.”

The issue will be further discussed at the board’s workshop with the health and human services department in two weeks. “I’m looking for a good conversation at the workshop about what strategies are in place to reduce out-of-home placement,” Olson said. “I don’t think we’ve had a real conversation about that yet, to be able to name all of them or what they are.”

Jewell said, “As a prevention matter, both the Steve O’Neill Apartments and Gimaadji are having a very real effect on stabilizing families.”
A related issue was increased costs in placements with treatment facilities, not just for children, outside the county. Services to cover “increased out of home placement costs and increase in cost share of persons at Anoka Regional Treatment Center” required an $800,000 transfer from St. Louis County’s unspent personnel budget.

Jewell recalled a similar case last year in which a St. Louis County resident was set to be discharged from a treatment facility in Willmar. “The problem there was that he could go home, but nobody would take him. So we were paying a gigantic sum of money every day for housing him there, and the issue was that really there weren’t other alternatives, and he, of course, had a whole series of special problems, but I was struck by that because what did we pay, $1,000 a day or some remarkable sum … I don’t know if we can change that.”

St. Louis County urgently needs more foster families. To inquire call 218-726-2228 (south) or 218-471-7793 (north).

Disclosure: Reporter Richard Thomas is a foster parent.