Child protection agencies across Minnesota are routinely flouting state laws requiring a rapid response to suspected child abuse.
The law requires social workers to meet with victims within one to five days, depending on the severity of the allegation. But records show that in nearly 6,000 cases in 2014, children didn’t get a visit from a social worker when reported for abuse in the time required by law — about 1 in 4 children.
For years counties that violated the deadlines faced few repercussions, but that appears likely to change. Following the Star Tribune’s reporting on child protection failures, the Legislature in 2015 passed numerous reforms to toughen the state’s approach, including mandates that counties meet promptly with abused children.
But the Minnesota Department of Human Services says the problem is still prevalent, and at the end of this month the agency will start withholding money from counties that cannot meet their deadlines.
“We still have way too many children not being responded to,” said Rep. Ron Kresha, R-Little Falls, a member of a task force Gov. Mark Dayton formed in 2014 to reform child protection. “We need to work on our response times.”
On Dec. 31, an 8-year-old boy arrived at the Fairview Southdale emergency room in Edina with bruises all over his body. His mother and stepfather had choked, punched and kicked him and whipped him with a belt, he told the doctor, because he didn’t do well with his school flash cards, according to court records. He said his parents forced him to stay in a crouched position on his tiptoes for hours, where he couldn’t eat or drink, or use the bathroom.
Horrified, his emergency room physician, Dr. Lisa Hollensteiner, called Hennepin County child protection to report the abuse, hoping to protect him from his parents, records show. Under state law, agency social workers had 24 hours to meet with the boy and put a plan in place to keep him safe, such as taking him to an emergency shelter.
Instead, the agency told her they were closed for the long holiday weekend. Hollensteiner, who also happened to be a member of Dayton’s task force, wrote a letter to state and Hennepin County officials saying child protection told her they would not respond to the report until Monday — four days later.
When child protection did respond, the boy was placed under the county’s care. His mother and stepfather have been charged with malicious punishment of a child.
“Children deserve to be protected, no matter what holiday, day of the week or time of day,” Hollensteiner wrote.
In 2014, 79 of the state’s 87 counties failed to comply with the law mandating that children reported for abuse be seen within the 24-hour to five-day time frame, according to a report released by the Legislature last week. Hennepin County had one of the worst rates in the state, falling short of the deadline in about 40 percent of abuse reports.
Social workers had the same problems making timely meetings with children in open cases and foster care. The law requires those meetings to take place at least once a month, but that only occurred in three-quarters of the cases in 2014, meaning there were more than 14,000 missed visits. Thirty-six counties failed to abide by that mandate.
A law that went into effect in July penalizes counties for failing to meet the state timeliness measures. Lawmakers gave counties the rest of the year to bring their child protection agencies up to standard.
That hasn’t happened, said Jim Koppel, the head of child protection for the Minnesota Department of Human Services. He said preliminary numbers for 2015 showed that a “majority” of counties are struggling to meet the state requirements in meeting with abuse victims. By the end of the month, DHS will start sending out notices to counties that grant money will be withheld for failing to meet the standards.
Koppel said most counties do not have a system to respond to abuse reports in 24 hours, which is required by DHS.
“Twenty-four seven has been on the books a long time,” Koppel said. “But over the years this has been a policy that has drifted and lost its way. We know this is a best practice.”
Koppel said he hopes most counties will be in compliance by the beginning of 2017.
To get there will require more funding to hire additional workers, said Phil Claussen, Blue Earth County’s human services director. Counties have routinely fallen short of the state mandates due to funding cuts, said Claussen, who is also president of the Minnesota Association of County Social Service Administrators.
More than $40 million in money allocated by the Legislature over this year and the next will allow agencies to hire about 400 new workers statewide, Claussen said.
Hollensteiner declined to comment for this story, citing patient confidentiality. But in her Jan. 6 letter, which was obtained by the Star Tribune, she described how Hennepin County’s delay in responding to the 8-year-old boy led to a terrifying weekend for the child.
He went to stay with his grandmother, Hollensteiner wrote, but the boy’s parents went to the home four times in the next four days to get the child back. Once the mother showed up with a police officer, who suspected the boy had been kidnapped. The officer left after the grandmother showed him a copy of the emergency department report.
Two days later, Hollensteiner told the grandmother and the boy to flee from their home after the two got a call that the mother and stepfather were coming to get the child.
“For four days, this child and family member had no support from child protection,” Hollensteiner wrote.
On Jan. 4, a child protection investigator interviewed the boy, who recounted the abuse. The county placed the boy on a 72-hour protective hold, and the next day the county filed a petition seeking to place him in foster care with his grandmother. About two weeks later his mother and stepfather, both of Minneapolis, were charged with malicious punishment of a child.
In brief interviews Friday, the couple denied abusing the boy.
Rex Holzemer, an assistant Hennepin County administrator, said the current system of responding to abuse reports “has kept children safe.” But he said the county will move to a 24-hour turnaround on investigations.
“We all agree that it would be the best practice to be more responsive,” he said.