Child protection reforms taking hold

An ongoing transformation of Hennepin County’s child-welfare system is starting to show some promising results, according to an update provided in September to the Child Well-Being Advisory Committee.

“I’m encouraged to say over the last couple of months the data is starting to give us that sense of hope that the system is starting to turn,” said Jennifer DeCubellis, deputy county administrator for health and human services.

The update was delivered three years after a national child welfare organization reviewed Hennepin County’s child protection program, finding a workforce burdened with high caseloads and a lack of resources. Commissioner Mike Opat, who chairs the committee, said the county had been on a “three-year journey” to enact recommendations outlined in the 2015 Casey Family Programs report, boosting funding for child protection, hiring workers to bring down caseloads and redesigning the system.

“The first two years have been more reflective, and the last year has been one of transformation,” Opat said.

Child protection staff increased to 647 full-time equivalent positions in 2017 from 385 in 2015, and county spending on child protection services and out-of-home placements increased to $101 million in 2017 from $74 million in 2015. DeCubellis said the county was on track to spend about $122 million on those programs in 2018.

She said the county is aiming to “flip the system,” spending more in the near term to bring down costs in the future by shifting its focus to child well-being. It’s a proactive approach that stresses early intervention to prevent abuse and neglect.

At the same time, the Hennepin County is dealing with a steep rise in child protection cases, which DeCubellis said have doubled since 2008, mirroring trends across the state and country. Regulatory changes are behind a portion of the rise, but the opioid epidemic plays a significant role, she said.

“We are seeing that drug addiction is superseding neglect for the first time in Hennepin County,” she said.

Opat said reports of child abuse or neglect made to the county had risen to about 60 per day. Total reports topped 20,000 in 2016 and 2017.

“That number has hopefully peaked and will be coming down,” he said.

The county reports an increase in out-of-home placements, with 3,182 temporarily living away from home in 2017, an 11 percent increase from 2016. As of June 30, the number of children in out-of-home placement was approaching the total for all of 2016.

But more of those children are being placed with relatives. As of June 30, more than one-third of children in out-of-home placements were staying with relatives; in 2016, it was less than one-quarter of children.

The presentation to the Child Well-Being Advisory Committee also touted a significant reduction in child protection staff turnover and quicker response times to reports of maltreatment.