The Free Press, Mankato, MN

January 22, 2013

Detox, child welfare costs up for Blue Earth County

By Dan Linehan
Free Press Staff Writer

MANKATO — Counties across Minnesota are required to collect child support, detoxify the drunk and place children in foster homes, among other responsibilities.

But each county does it a bit differently.

Take the child support office, the 2012 performance of which the Blue Earth County Board discussed Tuesday.

The county does better than average in establishing fatherhood and in being cost-effective: The county collects just under $6 in child support for every $1 it spends, compares to about $4.50 for the statewide average.

But it’s below average for the percentage of court-ordered child support is actually paid. The county collects about 67 percent of its child support, compared to 71 percent for the state average.

Human Services Director Phil Claussen said the county is considering changing its child support strategy a bit by levying child support based on the person’s ability to pay.

“There can be a deterrent to having an order be issued and having it be an unrealistic amount and people don’t pay at all,” he said.

But, as in this case, it isn’t always the county’s goal to beat the average. The statistics might look better, in other words, by drastically reducing the amount of child-support orders in order to collect a higher percentage of it.

That, however, isn’t the goal — helping children is the goal — but the example shows how statistics could help the department collect more money.

Commissioners also had some questions about how the county collects child support.

“What do we do to people who don’t pay?” Commissioner Vance Stuehrenberg asked.

He was told the county can garnish wages and tax returns, but doesn’t do much criminal prosecution.

County Attorney Ross Arneson said civil penalties are typically more effective.

“If that’s not successful, then throwing them in jail doesn’t do you much good,” he said. He said there are some exceptions, as when someone is self-employed.

Stuehrenberg, a former police officer, said sometimes the criminal justice system can scare child support delinquents straight.

“When they have to stand in front of the person with a black robe on, sometimes it makes a difference.”

Commissioners also heard about how much other human services departments spent in 2012, compared with previous years.

Spending on out-of-home placement of children rose by 12 percent, to about $1.3 million, after the county saw an unusually high number of children who needed hospital-level care. The most disturbed children, who are often in danger of hurting themselves or others, can be expensive to care for.

“It’s hard to predict year-to-year how many of those kids we’ll have,” Claussen said.

Detox costs rose 8 percent, to about $380,000. This still isn’t the all-time high — $388,000 was spent in 2009 — but detox is an unpopular line item and tends to attract attention.

It’s not clear how much of that cost is eventually recouped. Only about 20 percent of people who end up in detox have insurance that can be billed for the stay, said Jill Wenzel, director of the Brown County Evaluation Center.

Mankato and Blue Earth County have been looking for less expensive ways to do detox, but haven’t come up with much yet.

“They’re looking for better alternatives and I just don’t know that there are any,” Wenzel said.

Child care costs fell by about 17 percent, to about $1.01 million.

Claussen said he hopes the decline is a result of fewer parents needing to rely on the state for child care.

“In a lot of ways it’s really good news. I hope it says something about the bigger picture.”