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Changes ahead for Friends Forever

Program to move from county control to a new nonprofit agency

— Daily Freeman-Journal photo by Anne Blankenship Friends Forever will remain in its present location at the county Mental Health building on Fair Meadow Drive, but changes are on the horizon. The Board of Supervisors on Tuesday announced plans to establish a nonprofit agency to operate the program. A revised interpretation of the 2012 Iowa Code has made county-operated services for individuals with mental illness or intellectual disabilities illegal, according to the Supervisor Doug Bailey.

Some changes are coming for a Hamilton County-based social services agency, according to the Hamilton County Board of Supervisors.

Doug Bailey, chairman of the board of supervisors, announced Tuesday that Friends Forever will be moving out of the county’s control to become a non-profit agency, governed by a board of directors.

“A recent revised interpretation of 2012 Iowa Code concerning county-operated services with individuals with mental illness and intellectual disabilities, makes it not only impossible, but illegal for Hamilton County to continue to operate Friends Forever after June 30,” Bailey said.

Bailey went on to say that Friends Forever has been a valuable and successful program in Hamilton County for over 20 years.

“It is the intention of this board that Friends Forever will continue serving the residents of Hamilton County for the next 20-plus years,” Bailey said. “But the program will have to operate outside of the Hamilton County Board of Supervisors authority.”

Bailey said the board first became aware of the impending change back in November.

“We sought clarification from the state department of management, the Department of Human Services and the State Auditor’s Office. It was made clear in a phone call last week with the state auditor’s office that neither Hamilton County. nor any other county, will be allowed to continue these programs,” Bailey said.

Options for continuing friends forever are few, he added. The operation could be turned over to the Central Iowa Community Services region, which Bailey said the board had no interest in doing. Additionally, he said they could seek out a private service provider to take over.

“Again, we have no desire to do that,” he said.

Ultimately, he said, the most logical idea was to help initiate the startup of a new nonprofit agency that would allow for local control.

“We feel that local control is critical to maintain the integrity of the program,” Bailey said.

The supervisors said they had already taken steps to bring the new nonprofit into being. They are joining forces with Central Iowa Recovery, an area mental health provider located in Webster City.

“With the director Tim Bedford, have started the process of creating the nonprofit agency,” Bailey said.

Bailey said CIR is connected to Hamilton County and other Iowa counties with a 28E agreement and is facing the same fate as Friends Forever.

“It would be our hope to have the new nonprofit agency up and running by mid-April. Our plans for Friends Forever are simple — the new organization would continue to serve all the individuals that are now being served,” he said.

Friends Forever would continue to be located in the Mental Health building at 500 Fair Meadow Drive, for which they pay rent to the county. The group homes operated by Friends Forever would continue to operate and current staff would be invited to transfer to the new organization.

“Essentially, there would be no visible changes to Friends Forever,” he said. “It would simply no longer be a county operated program.”

Staff members, clients and family members were notified recently of the upcoming change.

Bailey said he and his fellow supervisors were disappointed about the decision, but are dedicated to making the transition seamless for those served, their families and guardians, and the public.

The Friends Forever program was started by former Social Services Director Sharon Perry more than 20 years. The program is currently led by Patti Treibel-Leeds.

“This is a program that really is a quality of life program for the county,” he said, adding, “and it’s a program we’re enormously proud of.”

He credited program director Kenric Weinshenk with making Friends Forever a “shining light” in the programs offered by the county.

“We have to look to the future and how we can help them build on past successes,” he said.

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