County redefining human services

Hennepin County commissioners will make final decisions Dec. 16 on the 2004 county budget. Like the state, Hennepin County faces difficult choices about how to maintain public services with shrinking funds. For the first time, the county plans to cut funding from organizations that employ non-licensed “paraprofessionals.” These employees provide crucial public services, and the county’s move to eliminate many of them is a near-sighted accounting maneuver that could have devastating effects on the community.

One organization that will be hit particularly hard is the Sexual Violence Center, the recent subject of a front-page article in the Minnesota Women’s Press. The center provides a unique service to the county by sending trained volunteers to the site of a crisis. They mitigate the long-term psychological effects of sexual violence by providing counseling to victims at hospitals or police stations immediately following an incident. These volunteers also offer advocacy to victims, which can be crucial in an investigative situation.

WCCO-TV recently broadcast footage of a 13-year-old girl being interrogated by White Bear Lake Detective Tim Stevenson after she reported being abducted and sexually assaulted. Operating on shoddy detective work, the officer accused the young woman of lying and berated her at length. At one point he yelled, “You keep lying and lying and lying and lying!” The family proved she was abducted and is now suing the White Bear Lake Police Department.

Such interrogations are known to cause “revictimization,” wherein the victim re-experiences the humiliation and trauma of a sexual assault when his or her claim is forcefully rejected by a figure of authority. Revictimization can prolong the healing process and deepen psychological trauma.

Victim advocates, such as those trained and employed by the Sexual Violence Center, can protect both victims and public agencies from such an occurrence. Hennepin County plans to cut all funding to the center in 2004 despite the support it offers to more than 1,000 people annually.

The county justifies these cuts because the Sexual Violence Center employs paraprofessionals who are not included in the Medical Assistance Fee Schedule. This is the first year funding decisions were made only through the fee schedule. Hennepin County commissioners should reconsider their new policy regarding paraprofessionals, which represents a dramatic shift in how the county defines and values human services.