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County commission embracing change

The newly named Crook County Human Services is focusing on early childhood and youth development


by: JASON CHANEY - Crook County Commissioner Ken Fahlgren and Crook County Human Services Director Brenda Comini have worked with the State of Oregon over the past three years to increase their emphasis on early childhood while maintaining existing programs.

that would ultimately affect the name and focus of a local government agency.

Spawned by an increased emphasis on early learning programs, the state eliminated its commission on children and families program, and with that, state funding that supported Crook County Commission programs was left with an uncertain future.

Three years have since passed, and after a lot of planning and a recent name change, the county agency now has a more firm plan in place going forward.

Now known as Crook County Human Services, the organization has embraced the early learning and youth development focus set forth by Kitzhaber.

“Human Services is the function that our county has kind of taken on to work with these aspects of the work,” said director Brenda Comini. “The two areas that change very dramatically for us at the state level have to do with the service components of early childhood, and youth development.”

The agency will focus on a variety of birth through age six services, including school readiness, parent education and support, coordination on the transition from preschool, and other early childhood programs, to kindergarten, and increased developmental screenings before entering elementary school.

Comini noted that the early childhood work has primarily targeted school readiness, and has involved not only the former commission, but the Crook County Health Department as well.

“On the health side, for instance, developmental screening is one of their metrics and one of the things they are expected to do through primary care physicians,” she said. “On the early childhood side, there is the requirement in almost all home visiting programs to do periodic development screening and using that to guide their work with parents.”

The approach has required the health and early childhood systems to communicate about and work on projects together, a new method that the two groups are still developing.

With youth development the other increased focus for the changing Human Services agency, they will emphasize care for middle school- and high school-age children as they work toward graduation.

“They are just now kind of making their transition,” Comini said of state requirements, “and they very specifically are asking us to work on a system that connects juvenile justice with education.”

As the local agency shifts its focus to these new priority areas, they will continue to offer the traditional services of drug and alcohol prevention, and support victims of domestic violence. However, the state now intends to evaluate those programs with performance-based outcomes.

“That is a hard conversation to have because it takes so long to see the outcomes,” Comini said. “The transition there has been from (prevention) programs to more environmental and taking a look at enforcement and policy and how those affect things.”

In addition to the specific changes in focus and programs, Crook County has been asked to embrace a more regional approach to its Human Service department.

“We have done community assessments across the region to see what communities need what,” Comini explained.

While the approach has helped the Central Oregon communities work together toward common goals, it has produced some concerns. For example, with the regional approach, Central Oregon counties have been asked to come up with more as a region while the state reduces its financial assistance.

“The reality is that some places have more resources,” Comini said. “Do you leave out rural Oregon if you are asking communities to pick up and fund more?”

The other concern is that the regional approach could cause local needs to go overlooked in lieu of more region-wide needs.

“You have to have local advocacy, because the needs are so different,” Comini stressed. “Our job is to figure out on the ground locally what it’s going to take to move our population.”

When news of an uncertain future for the local commission first surfaced, county officials expressed concerns about whether its programs would survive and whether funding for them would continue. Now, the picture is getting clearer, and they hope that the transition will result in what’s best for Crook County.

“We are still on edge on quite a few things,” said Crook County Commissioner Ken Fahlgren, “but we are feeling like it is more probable that we will be able to continue programs in our own community.”




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