I had a chance last week to chat via a Minnesota Rural Partners videoconference with Marcy Hanneman, community services director at Brekenridge Public Schools. She’s in charge of the area’s early childhood education program, and she made the point that as public money dwindles, demand for the services of her program and others grows.
Breckenridge is in far western Minnesota, on the North Dakota border. It’s the seat of Wilkin County, population 6,565 and shrinking. Once you get past the major employers of schools, hospitals and other services, the economy is in tough shape.
“We’re seeing greater disparity between the haves and have nots,” she said.
But one way family service providers have come up with to cope is a more rigorous comparing of notes and workloads. Every week, staff members from early childhood, law enforcement, public health, family services and the court system meet to compare notes about people potentially in need. Depending on the individuals and the time in their lives, the appropriate service can deliver what’s needed. Between meetings, the emails and phone calls continue the communication.
Hanneman mentioned the case of a teenager turning 18, headed for court on a variety of charges but whose girlfriend just had a baby. He was a known commodity among service provders in the community but at this point it was time to send someone in who could educate the two on parent skills.
“We can’t live in silos and each provide services and not bump into each other,” Hanneman said.
She’s the first to acknowledge there isn’t really much good measurement of such collaborative approaches to family services. While there is ample evidence that early childhood programs prepare kids for school, for example, it’s tougher to measure a collaborative effort that gets a new mom to redirect the behavior of a misbehaving child by means other than spanking.
The services involved are short on cash as it is, so devoting resources to measurement doesn’t make much sense. But even so, spreading the safety net more broadly seems like a good idea.
“There are so many families that continue to fall through the net. That’s the hard part.”
It may well work better in a small city or a rural county because people are familiar with cases, but it also provides an inkling that simliar efforts that join towns and cross county lines are also ways to deal with increasing local government budget pressure.