Collaborative helps area kids, families

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The Carlton County Children's Mental Health and Family Services Collaborative will celebrate 25 years of helping families and children in 2018.

It is a fluid organization, constantly moving like the gears in a watch, with independent pieces that work smoothly together to keep the watch working, like the different programs in the Collaborative.

The Collaborative is made up of different relevant organizations working together, including Carlton County, Fond du Lac, public health, schools, juvenile corrections, mental health and Community Action Program/Head Start. The state requires that each of the organizations have representation on the board so it may receive Local Collaborative Time Study funding. There are nearly 90 collaboratives throughout the state. Each one is different as it meets the unique needs of its specific communities.

Collaborative members quietly go about their business behind the scenes, looking for unmet needs in the community, then finding a solution.

The Collaborative does not employee any staff, but operates by collaborating with the relevant organizations for each individual program under its umbrella. For example, the truancy program may work with the truancy prevention specialist, the truant student, the student's family and the school as a Collaborative partner.

According to Collaborative Director Donna Lekander, who is a Carlton County employee, the Collaborative matches people and/or organizations to work together to assist children and families who would otherwise fall through the cracks. The Collaborative jump-starts pilot programs, then often transitions the responsibility to another relevant organization.

TXT4LIFE is a very successful program that transferred from the Collaborative and county umbrella to a state-run program. The program began as a partnership with Carlton County Public Health and Human Services as well as the Collaborative.

From 1990-2005, Carlton County ranked fifth in Minnesota counties in youth suicides. A group of students came up with the idea to create a texting suicide hotline for kids in addition to the traditional phone call or in-person visit. They believed kids would choose texting to communicate.

In 2011, the county received funding from a federal program, Garrett Lee Smith Youth Suicide Prevention. In 2013, TXT4LIFE won a Local Government Innovation Award.

The original goal of the program was to reach kids in grades 7-12 who live in rural and in the northeast Minnesota area. In its third year, the TXT4LIFE program has expanded across the state.

"We are investing in the kids," Lekander said. She has been passionate about the organization's mission and goals ever since she began working with the Collaborative 10 years ago.

The Collaborative targets new initiatives that will help any age child, from newborns and older, as well as their families.

JumpStart, literacy programs and Universal Home Visiting for younger children all began in the area with the Collaborative and its partners.

About 50 percent of the kids in the county were not ready for kindergarten, Lekander said. Since the implementation of the JumpStart Program seven years ago, school readiness has increased to 87 percent in Carlton County.

According to Wilder Research in a 2008 study, the estimated cost burden to the Minnesota K-12 system due to children entering kindergarten unprepared for school success is about $113 million annually.

For older youth, the Collaborative partners to offer truancy prevention, restorative justice, family school support worker and school-linked mental health services.

The truancy program has been active in Carlton County for 20 years and is one of the longest running programs at the collaborative. The newest program is restorative practices in the schools. Read "The power of a circle" story at www.pinejournal.com/news/4331561-power-circle for more on this program.

The truancy program helps keep kids out of the court system by having a truancy prevention specialist work with students and their families to keep the student in school.

How does that affect the surrounding community?

According to Lekander, children who are truant are more likely to be unemployed, rely on public assistance and engage in criminal or delinquent behavior. It also will help the community in the long run as preventing truancy increases the odds of the student becoming a productive part of the community and make higher wages, and, consequently, becoming a contributing taxpayer. The program has been successfully implemented in all Carlton County school districts.

The numbers tell the story of how the the truancy program has kept most kids out of the courts. With 16,585 interventions over the years, the collaborative referred 167 students to the County Attorney's Office or County Child Protection Team for truancy (or 1 percent of the students referred to the truancy program over the years). The program served 1,551 students in 2016-17. That translated to four students sent to court and four students referred to Child Protection.

Lekander said another issue here is the shortage of mental health workers and services, especially in rural areas.

Community programs that partner with the Collaborative in this area include Operation Community Connect, Suicide Prevention, Homeless Awareness, Community Wellness and Resiliency building.

These programs, and others that came before, focus on early intervention to prevent bigger problems in the future.

The Collaborative is constantly seeking new programs that will help provide a safety net for the people who fall through the cracks of other programs, or the people often not seen in the communities.

Lekander fills out paperwork seeking grants to cover the costs of the new and existing programs.

The Collaborative receives most of its funding from a federal program called Local Collaborative Time Study, private and public grants, contracts for services fees, membership fees and the county levy.

For more information, visit cccollab.org.