Hubbard County Social Services staff and supporters packed the county boardroom Tuesday to vent frustration about the work atmosphere and high staff turnover in the past two years.

Tori Varland, one of six child protection workers, spoke on their behalf.

In November 2019, the Minnesota Teamsters Local 320 and Hubbard County agreed to retain the services of a consultant to assess the workplace environment and make recommendations to improve collaboration and morale for social services staff.

The county spent $4,955 to hire Susan Herreid, a consultant with Sand Creek, a Minnesota workplace wellness consulting firm. Her findings and recommendations was presented to social services staff and administration in December 2018.

"The consultant made several productive recommendations about improving the work environment; however, these recommendations are continuously being ignored. This is alarming as over $10,000 of taxpayer money is being wasted," Varland said.

She asked the county board to honor Herreid's recommendations, "including having the consultant oversee the improvement plan."

"One of the main obstacles that we're constantly facing as an agency is lack of communication. With an absent children's and family supervisor, and no direction or guidance given, the simple questions, such as who's signing foster care payments, who's authorizing paid time off and who's around to screen an investigation, have been unaddressed to this day since the supervisor's unwarranted firing," Varland said.

Policy implementation is another obstacle, she continued. "When policies are implemented, it is the understanding that it applies to all staff; however, it has been seen time and time again that specific individuals are exempt from this. This creates an environment of confusion, favoritism and distrust. Successful leadership is important for this line of work, as poor management not only harms our children in foster care, but families as a whole and service providers," Varland said.

She told county commissioners, "You have the control to make these changes that are so desperately needed. You have the power to create a more suitable work environment, and everyone here is anxiously awaiting that."

Tanya Edwards, a foster care provider for over 10 years in Hubbard County, spoke next. She said more than 200 children have come through her licensed home.

"I'm here today in hopes of hearing if there's going to be any discussion about staffing issues within your department," she said. "If I can notice a difference in two to three years, I would hope you guys would notice a difference as well."

She pointed out that another vacancy in social services was on the agenda.

"With your turnover rate being about 52 percent, why would you want to bring in any more employees to experience a toxic environment? As a taxpayer, what does this cost us? I've seen how the supervisors, direct line social workers and staff are treated, and I should add us foster parents as well," Edwards said. "Your employees' lives have been shattered. Foster parents lives have been financially, emotionally and verbally destroyed. All these changes and turnovers are due to one person. If something is not done, you're going to lose more staff, along with foster care providers like myself, who will close their doors or transfer their licenses to a private agency. I cannot even imagine how citizens of our community get treated when they come in to apply for desperately needed services. How about the parents of children who are in foster placement? Our Social Services department needs a major overall before you don't have a department."

Assistant Hubbard County Attorney Erika Randall said she has handled child protection cases for 16 years.

"The most important thing that Hubbard County does every single day is child protection - every single day," Randall said. "When you remove a kid from their family, it is more important than any decision you all make or any other department makes. The fact that this issue in social services is not being addressed is a huge disservice to the members of Hubbard County. You have been told over and over and over again that there is a problem in the social services department and you have been told where that problem is stemming from, and all of you have buried your head in the sand."

Randall said she reached out to the county board a few weeks ago, but was told through Hubbard County Attorney Jonathan Frieden that Board Chair Dan Stacey couldn't respond because "it was an HR issue."

"I could not disagree more," Randall said. "I'm a taxpayer. I'm an employee, and I handle your child protection work every single day.... You need to address this situation, and I don't know what nonsense reason was given for the termination of Miss Johnson, but it was just that."

Stacey asked Randall not reveal any names.

"It's not a secret as to who it was. It was a social services supervisor, who was doing her job and didn't want to be run by a dictator and maybe she spoke up. Maybe she didn't do everything perfectly, but she ran that department - again, the department that does the most important work - and she did it well," Randall replied. "You guys have a big problem, and I hope it gets addressed."

A "Save Hubbard County Social Services" petition is circulating on petitions.moveon.org. It calls for county commissioners to "follow the recommendations in the consultant's report to address the problem." As of Thursday night, there were 539 signatures.

In related business, the board authorized the filling of Social Services supervisor position.