Make an Investment in North Dakota Families

Gary WolskyBy Gary Wolsky, President/CEO
The Village Family Service Center
First let me state that I am a longstanding conservative who happens to work in a very liberal profession. I have been criticized loudly from both staff and community members periodically for my views and positions stated in this editorial space. I’m fine with that—after all, this is an editorial. Having been in this profession, for the most part, since finishing grad school in ’73, I am convinced there is nothing incompatible with a conservative world view and the provision of exceptional services to kids and families. Liberals don’t own this profession and they shouldn’t.
But today I want to visit with my conservative brethren in North Dakota politics and express my disappointment—at times they seem to be oblivious to “listening” when it comes to addressing prevention-related approaches that would better deal with the needs of our kids and families.
There are many wonderful Republicans who provide a balance to what I perceive as the shortsightedness and unwillingness to invest creatively in the prevention of problems. Senators Judy Lee and Dick Dever, to name only a couple, understand that well-thought-out services to kids and families can also be good business and are not alien to conservative values. They, along with others, have led legislative initiatives to study some of the best preventative work going on in the nation. The return on investment (ROI)—when these things are done well—is astounding. Kids win, families win, and taxpayers win.
I read recently that we’re willing to “invest” $85 million in nature conservancy-type issues—clean air, water, etc. Well, pardon me if I don’t dance on the table. Few would doubt the need to responsibly address these issues. Other than a few years of being in the Army, I’ve been a lifelong resident of North Dakota and I might suggest that our state’s record in addressing environmental issues has been exceptional—not perfect—and, of course, it is more complex with Bakken-related issues, but I would still say exceptional. But seriously, does anyone out there understand what ONE of those $85 million would do if invested in treating high risk families? This “investment” would keep our kids—your kids, your neighbor’s kids—out of prison, drug and alcohol rehab, etc., and increase the probability of their growing up to be responsible citizens. The Village has been doing this very work, and doing it successfully, for decades. Furthermore, this is done with an 80 percent success rate that I’d be happy to match in terms of ROI with other “investments” anytime, anyplace.
Let me suggest a storyline for you. One million dollars in our Foundation, with a return of 6 percent, yields $60,000 annually. It costs The Village just under $5,000 to treat an entire family—a high-risk family in which kids are quite likely to be placed outside the home. That $60,000 represents 12 families per year—EVERY YEAR. At an 80 percent success rate, that is 9.6 (call it 10) families with kids who DON’T go into an out-of-home placement, who DON’T go into foster care, who DON’T go into group homes, and who DON’T go into residential treatment. The cost to taxpayers for an out-of-home placement is considerably higher than the $5,000 it costs us to treat a family. The math is clear and prevention represents a far better investment. As I said, the kids win, the families win, and you and I as taxpayers win.
I understand that our profession has been part of this problem and must take some responsibility for this dilemma. For too long we have been showing up, requesting money, and making promises. Then, when asked about outcomes, some are caught mumbling something about “the dog having eaten our homework” by way of excuse. I know and understand this has not worked in our favor historically. That has to change—and it is changing. Our data collection and analysis at The Village, as well as our robust outcome reviews, will compete with any in the nation. When I say that our success rate—ROI—reflects an 80 percent success rate since 1987, I can back it up.
I know many of these folks in our state government, and I know them to be very good people. I don’t believe they are totally deaf to these issues, but in a sense this baffles me even more—why can’t we make more progress in funding programs that not only work, but have a strong ROI?
Given the financial strength of North Dakota, and the fact that our human service delivery system—both public and private—can deliver with proven, successful approaches, I challenge our elected decision makers to look at these issues differently than they have in the past.
Kids and families across the state need to be heard and taken seriously. They need equal footing with sewer lines, clean water, good roads, and the rest of it. To do this will take some leadership and I challenge both Republicans and Democrats alike, given the financial capacity we have, to take this moment to address some of these issues. I promise the return on this investment will be substantial.
The opinions expressed in this column are strictly those of The Village Family Service Center CEO. They do not necessarily reflect the views of the organization, staff, or boards of directors.

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