The number of children abused by their parents or reported at risk to Hennepin County is soaring, and county leaders have a solution: Rebuild the child protection system to help families prevent abuse.

But first they have to figure out how to come up with the $13.3 million needed to fund their plans next year.

"It's a huge investment and change in the system," said Jennifer DeCubellis, deputy county administrator of health and human services.

A committee on child protection oversight presented the plan Thursday to the County Board after a year's work of coming up with ideas to reform the system. It developed a new model to better protect at-risk children, intervening earlier rather than waiting to act after abuse happens.

It shifts the county's focus from a strictly emergency response to providing more care and services up front to families, reflecting a national trend of child protection services, moving from crisis mode to proactive measures.

"It really is getting upstream to trauma instead of being in reactive mode," DeCubellis said.

The County Board is scheduled to vote on a resolution Nov. 15 supporting the new program and its costs next year.

Child protection workers are responding to more cases than ever before. Hennepin County is on pace to end 2016 with more than 21,000 child protection reports — double those from 2008 and the highest number in the county's history.

As a result, costs have soared, with the county spending $40 million this year on foster care and out of home placement for children. That's $6 million more than last year.

"We need a different model," DeCubellis said. "Everything is going up at an astronomical level."

In the $26 million three-year plan presented Thursday, the county would add nearly 250 new staff members over three years to reduce caseloads, boost a program to connect parents with services like mental health and employment and create a new chronic neglect unit. It also would add a child well-being director to head up the initiative, and a new "transformation team."

"It's a good first step," said Roberta Opheim, the state's ombudsman for mental health and developmental disabilities. "If we really want to quit building mental health institutions and prisons, we need to start with the child."

In a statement, Minnesota Department of Human Services Commissioner Emily Piper said that Hennepin County's efforts were very encouraging.

"Providing child protection services is a shared partnership," she said. "We want Hennepin County to be successful in addressing child safety and well-being and applaud its substantial commitment to improving outcomes for children and families."

Expensive program

But it all would come at a steep cost — which county leaders don't want Minneapolis and the suburbs to shoulder.

"Property tax shouldn't be the only source," said County Board Chair Jan Callison, who was on the oversight committee. "I think the state of Minnesota has to step up to the plate."

There's a $10 million gap in the $13.3 million funding needed for next year's program, so county leaders will look at reserve funds and the general fund to plug it, County Administrator David Hough said. County leaders also are considering seeking help from foundations and nonprofits, and plan to meet with legislators and DHS officials to ask for state funding.

"This is not a problem unique to Hennepin County," DeCubellis said.

With the extra costs, Commissioner Jeff Johnson said a data unit is critical to make sure the new model is working before spending more money.

The community also needs to get involved, said Commissioner Mike Opat, who co-chaired the committee — from faith groups to family, friends and neighbors speaking out against abuse.

Not going to be easy

"I'm not going to say it's going to be easy, but neither is a recurring $26 million bill," he said.

While the new program may cost a lot now, county leaders said, they hope it will shrink the number of children who are abused or neglected in the long term. That would drive down the cost of foster care and child protection and, most importantly, save children's lives.

It was a string of child deaths and heightened concern about child abuse that spurred Hennepin County officials to ask a national child welfare organization to assess the county's system. That 2015 report by the Casey Family Programs recommended the county undertake 23 reforms, including "a re-visioning for its child protection system."

"It's still a system in distress but I believe there is less distress than a year ago," Mike Scholl, of Casey Family Programs, told commissioners. "You're not alone. Across the country there are so many jurisdictions struggling."

The report prompted the county to create the oversight committee, which held its final meeting last month and presented the new plan Thursday.

"The current system is unsustainable," DeCubellis said. "We need to do this better and different in Hennepin County."