County commissioners and human services staff know the critical role counties play in ensuring the safety of children. All children have the right to be safe and all families have the right to assistance in times of difficulty and need. Counties strive to perform this role to the best of our abilities, which is why the Association of Minnesota Counties supported the Office of the Legislative Auditor’s February 2012 evaluation of child protection screening practices across Minnesota.
Counties and the state work together to ensure the best practices are in place. The OLA report on child protection screening concluded the following:
• Child protection agencies adequately administer intake of child maltreatment referrals;
• Child protection agencies’ screening methods are conducive to making objective decisions that are consistent with state law, and;
• Variation in agency screening decisions reflect many factors, including interpretation of state law, agency perceptions of risk and the information agencies consider during screening.
A central theme in the April 20 article “7 of 10 abuse calls not checked” was that Minnesota counties appear to “screen out” more reported cases of child abuse than other states, and that the percentage of cases that are closed without investigation varies between Minnesota counties. But it’s important to look beyond the data points to the data collection to understand these differences.
Increases in the statewide “screen out” rate from 2000-2010 may reflect changes in data recording practices rather than changes in agencies’ screening decisions. In 1999 a new data reporting system was implemented. As counties became more adept at using the new system the amount of data reporting increased. However, the actual number of reports “screened out” did not.
Despite the resulting higher “screen out” rate, Minnesota did the same number of assessments per year from 1996-2010, with a low of 16,384 in 2001 and a high of 19,846 in 2006, even though our child population is decreasing. While serving the same number of families, counties now document information received in a more consistent manner.
We believe it’s misleading to compare Minnesota screening practices to other states because of the variation in state laws, data collection systems and data retention practices.
Beyond the data, our most important job is to provide support to children and families. Though a report may be “screened out” that doesn’t mean no action was taken to assist a family. While a report may not meet the statutory threshold for child protection, counties offer other services to assist families. Minnesota has a statewide Parent Support Outreach Program (PSOP), as well as mental health services, chemical dependency services, and community resources that assist parents in providing a safe home environment. The OLA report shows that in a survey, 65 percent of agencies report offering other services in “screened out” cases “sometimes” and 29 percent offer other services “often/always.”
Counties dedicate significant funding and staffing into the area of child protection because of the high priority we place on the safety of children. We are committed to improving child protection processes, working as required within the bounds of existing state statutes. Counties have worked to implement the OLA report recommendations by:
• Participating in a Department of Human Services (DHS) work group of counties, tribes and stakeholders to review state screening guidelines and make appropriate adaptations;
• Increasing training in intake and screening for county agencies, and;
• Working with DHS in clarifying data retention policies and rules surrounding “screened out” reports, accepting reports from anonymous reporters and what type of ancillary information can be used in the screening process.
These are important steps forward and counties are committed to the most effective use of the resources available, beyond merely complying with statute or implementing the OLA recommendations, to achieve the important goal of safety and well-being for all of Minnesota’s children.
Toni Carter is a Ramsey County commissioner and 2014 president of the Association of Minnesota Counties.