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Crow Wing County Board: Seeking social services: Mother with cancer-stricken child says she felt lost in system

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Audriana Wallin poses with daughter Lainee Balsimo and son Brian Phillips. Lainee died last week after suffering from a rare childhood cancer. Submitted photo2 / 2

Ten days after her 6-year-old daughter's death, a young mother explained to the Crow Wing County Board how social services failed her in her time of need.

Audriana Wallin of Brainerd addressed the board Tuesday during the open forum portion of the meeting. Wallin said she felt she was expected to manage her own case when financial hardship stemming from her daughter's two-year struggle with a rare pediatric cancer led her to seek assistance.

'To advocate for me'

Wallin read from a letter she sent to County Administrator Tim Houle in May, shortly after learning daughter Lainee Balsimo's diagnosis was terminal.

"My precious resources are being drained and devoted to fighting an incredibly flawed social services system that treats people as if they are carbon copies and their circumstances are able to be categorized by checking boxes and sending out 10,000 pieces of letters in the mail—not asking how they can help, rather threatening to disconnect services," Wallin said. "Would you imagine in our circumstance that we were checking our mail regularly? Would it not be more cost effective to pick up the phone and call? To send an email that 95 percent of all citizens have connected to their phone—that is now culturally with us at all times? I don't even get to identify an actual individual human to manage my case as they call it, because, that might mean that someone has to be accountable for their actions or lack thereof."

Sheriff Todd Dahl approached the podium, offering Wallin tissues as her tears began to flow. Wallin, trained in the field of social work, said she made numerous attempts to seek help with her case, and found it next to impossible to connect with a social worker or discuss specifics of her situation.

"Everyone knows that it (the system) isn't working, however, no one really understands why," Wallin said. "The response that I received today (in May) was, 'It is your responsibility to manage your case.'

"It is? Do you know how many times that I called asking for support, for a point person, for a social worker who could help me? Someone who would be able to advocate for me while I exert all of my resources advocating for my children? And do you know how many social workers I got? None. Not one. In almost two years not a single one, because we don't fit the rigid criteria despite desperately needing help."

After Wallin concluded reciting her letter, she explained she received a response from Sheila Skogen, community services operations manager. Skogen offered to meet with her, Wallin said, but due to Lainee's declining health, she'd been unable to schedule a meeting. Wallin said Skogen pulled her case from the case bank and community services employees began communicating with her via email.

"But should it really take that much vinegar?" Wallin said.

Commissioners respond

Commissioner Paul Thiede said he thought Wallin's statements deserved a response from the board.

"I think sometimes what you're experiencing, us five here, sometimes have less than perfect detail as well," Thiede said. "So you bring it with the passion you bring it, to not react to you I think would be inappropriate for us. We hear your story."

Thiede said he was glad to hear Skogen responded to Wallin in an attempt to address her concerns.

"Do we let things fall through the cracks occasionally? Probably so," Thiede said. "Ultimately this is a message that will allow us to review this case and take action. ... Laws do have an impact and restrict sometimes as much as help, so if there's reform that's necessary we certainly want to hear about it. I don't think it's fair to paint all of community services in a bad light because of one situation."

Commissioner Rachel Reabe Nystrom asked Wallin what needed to be done for her that wasn't done. Wallin responded she had a number of concerns she planned to address with Skogen, but she felt it was an issue of a lack of resources for employees passionate about helping people.

"We need to hear them more clearly," Wallin said. "They know what they need to help people better. They would never get into this field if they did not know how to help."

Wallin said she was addressing the commissioners because they were the ones with the power to make decisions concerning resources. She noted she'd been listening to the award presentation beginning Tuesday's meeting, when the county was recognized for its budget presentation by the Government Finance Officers Association.

"I don't think that Crow Wing County social services is doing a bad job," Wallin said. "I think they're doing the best with what they have. I just think they need more. And I think that you did a great job with your budget, otherwise you wouldn't have gotten the award, one of 87 counties. I was listening and taking notes, that's important to me, too. I know you're all doing a good job. Unfortunately, I'm just asking you to do better."

Commissioners offered their condolences to Wallin for the loss of her daughter.

"We'll be discussing this," Nystrom said.

Learning from Lainee

Wallin shared her story with the Dispatch in December, when Lainee's cancer was in remission and the family was able to celebrate Christmas at home together. At her next follow-up appointment, however, scans showed Lainee's cancer had returned.

Diagnosed at age 4 with pleuropulmonary blastoma, a rare lung cancer, Lainee underwent numerous relapses. Her cancer cells were used in mice studies in an attempt by researchers to understand the disease and seek a cure. In May, doctors told Wallin they did not believe her daughter would see age 7. On Sept. 2, Lainee died in the arms of her day care provider at the hospital, Wallin wrote in her daughter's obituary. Lainee wanted to be a teacher, Wallin said, and in Lainee's waning days, Wallin shared on her Facebook profile Lainee's teaching moments with the hashtag #teacherlainee.

"Let us let her continue to be a teacher now that she is all grown up," the obituary stated. "As an entire community mourns the death of a child, she left us all with lessons that could fill several bookshelves. Let us be her substitute teachers, and let us continue to allow her beautiful spirit to sun-shine-on."

Chelsey Perkins

Chelsey Perkins grew up in Crosslake and is a graduate of Pequot Lakes High School. She earned her bachelor's degree in professional journalism at the University of Minnesota-Twin Cities. Perkins interned at the Lake Country Echo and the Rochester and Austin Post-Bulletins, and also worked for the student-run Minnesota Daily newspaper as a copy editor and columnist during college. She went on to intern at Utne Reader magazine, where she was later hired as the research editor. Before becoming the community editor of the Brainerd Dispatch, Perkins worked as the county government beat reporter at the Dispatch and a staff writer for the Pineandlakes Echo Journal.

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