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St. Louis County Attorney's Office adds two positions

The St. Louis County Attorney's Office is increasing its staff, a move that's related to the ongoing opioid addiction crisis.

The St. Louis County Board unanimously approved on Tuesday the hiring of an attorney and a legal secretary, who would be allocated to the Virginia and Hibbing offices. The staff increase is the first for the office in more than a decade.

The two new positions weren't included in the 2018 county budget, but increasing caseloads in the county's Public Health and Human Services Division has stretched the staff thin.

"Increasing caseloads, mostly in the area of child protection, have resulted in the current staffing model being unsustainable without a significant reduction in services to the (Health and Human Services Division)," County Attorney Mark Rubin and County Administrator Kevin Gray said in a letter to the board.

Eleven of the 12 Health and Human Services attorneys spend at least part of their time working on child protection cases. Fifteen years ago, the county had four attorneys working on child protection cases, according to the letter. While the number of case filings has dropped in the Sixth Judicial District, the number of child protection cases increased by 64 percent between 2010 and 2017.

It's not only opioid addiction that's causing the jump, Rubin said. The Iron Range also faces issues with methamphetamine and alcohol abuse, he explained.

"It's really hard to ask for the additional positions because it means that the problem is still getting worse. I'm very confident that we're going to turn the tide, but it's going to take a concerted effort and the leadership has to come from us, from our attorneys," Rubin said after the county board meeting.

The positions will be funded through the Health and Human Services budget this year and then will be part of the 2019 county budget discussion, Gray said. The addition of the two positions isn't taking place in the county's normal budget timeline and county staff "worked hard to see if we could meet the workload and give the best service and support to Human Services, knowing that we were stretched. The workload and the timing and the need for resources in Virginia and Hibbing pushed us to bring this to the board earlier rather than later," he said.

Commissioner Keith Nelson said he's troubled any time the county increases its staff and the two new positions are a "huge, huge budget stressor." However, the county needs to get ahead of the situation.

"But first we need to catch up with it and that's really where we're at — is trying to catch up," Nelson said.

Commissioner Patrick Boyle said the need for the additional staff shows the stress that out-of-home placements of children are putting on counties across the state. Commissioner Tom Rukavina said the number of attorneys working on human services cases is "kind of frightening." He called for a county board workshop to discuss the issue.

"It doesn't seem, with all the money we're throwing at it, all the attorneys we're throwing at it and all the help in social services, it doesn't seem like we're getting to the bottom of it. It's a sad situation," Rukavina said. "Maybe we're slowing it down, but I don't know if we're solving it."

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