Jennifer DeCubellis is leading the most dramatic reform of the child protection system in Minnesota.
The charismatic 46-year-old is orchestrating a $13 million overhaul of Hennepin County’s system this year after stepping into the top human services role a year ago.
No other county in the state is taking on such an aggressive, widespread change of its system and DeCubellis hopes it will become a new model for Minnesota and the country — reflecting a national shift in child protection, preventing abuse rather than waiting to act until after it happens.
This month, she’s pitching a plan at the State Capitol, creating a team to oversee reforms and is in the midst of hiring 100 employees.
“We want to flip the system; it’s ambitious,” she said. “This is a complex system, so it’s going to take complex solutions to solve it.”
As the state’s largest county with the most money and highest number of child protection cases — 2016 had a record 20,000 reports — Hennepin has a lot at stake.
After a string of child deaths, the county and state have come under harsh scrutiny for failing to investigate abuse early enough. County expenses have soared, with child protection costing $88 million this year; of that, $40 million is for foster care and out-of-home placement — a $6 million rise from last year.
The combination of failures and rising costs led county leaders to question if the system is sustainable.
The answer, DeCubellis said, is a new child well-being model that will connect families to services earlier to help with things like mental health or employment in hopes of preventing abuse and keeping kids safe and with their parents. In turn, it could reduce child protection reports, out-of-home placements and overall costs, she said.
But prevention isn’t cheap. To pay for this year’s $13 million plan, the county had to draw some from its contingency fund. It’s part of a $26 million three- to five-year plan to boost programs and staffing.
“They just stepped up,” said Rich Gehrman, executive director of Safe Passage for Children, a child welfare watchdog group. “It’s a night and day [difference].”
Gehrman said DeCubellis still must lead major practice changes and direct a culture shift in child protection, adding, “I think she has the ability to pull it off.”
‘Let’s own what we own’
While most Minneapolis and west metro residents may not know her name, many have likely dealt with the services DeCubellis oversees — from mental and chemical health to veterans’ services, health clinics and the medical examiner’s office. The health and human services department is in the midst of a major housing plan, adding mental health crisis beds and opening the state’s first chemical health withdrawal management program.
But right now, child protection is front and center.
“We’re the only ones taking this aggressive approach trying to turn the whole system on its head,” DeCubellis said, adding that she feels the pressure, with children’s lives at stake. “No one wants to make the wrong decision.”
Hired by Hennepin County in 2011 as a director, DeCubellis was promoted last year to deputy administrator, a title that came with more duties and a salary this year of $199,798. There’s even talk of her being in the running for the next county administrator, the top CEO-like spot.
“She’s a superstar,” said County Administrator David Hough, calling her a hardworking, energetic visionary. “She really gets this area; she’s a doer.”
In her small office in downtown Minneapolis, color-coded notes fill a white board and her computer screen is dotted with yellow Post-its, scrawled with numbers and tasks. DeCubellis is animated, talking quickly with gestures as she dodges between as many as a dozen meetings a day. She takes calls during the commute between Orono and her office. Then it’s dinner with her husband and three kids, before answering e-mails late at night.
“We have an urgency as a community that things aren’t working,” she told a group of community leaders over coffee last week before taking some heat on the county’s system.
She’s said she’s trying to stop that “blame game” between the county, state and community, adding: “Let’s own what we own.”
A change agent
It isn’t the first time DeCubellis has been a change agent.
After graduating from Minnetonka High School and the University of Wisconsin at Madison, she got her first job as a teacher in Chicago, working with special education kids who were rival gang members. She brought a new approach that got them engaged in school, and it made the front page of a newspaper. But it met pushback from the school, not fitting its Montessori model.
She left, got a master’s in clinical psychology and got a job in Texas working with people with mental illnesses, rising from a clinical team leader to the assistant deputy mental health director. She realized then that she liked designing programs and systems.
In 2011, Hennepin hired her to be the architect of Hennepin Health, integrating medical and behavioral health care with social services. Then in 2015, the state Department of Human Services recruited her for a one-year stint as an assistant commissioner to unite divisions. She returned to the county to lead health and human services in 2016.
“It’s been a rapid rise, but I think her talent is clear,” Commissioner Mike Opat said. “She’s focused on outcomes, not just the next meeting.”
He co-chaired a committee that put together the reforms after a national child welfare organization, Casey Family Programs, recommended “a re-visioning” of the system. DeCubellis came in after the committee was formed, but she now must lead the reforms.
“She’s been absolutely instrumental in turning problem identification into action,” said Ann Ahlstrom, who co-chaired the committee with Opat.
Another committee member, Jim Koppel, the state’s assistant commissioner for children and family services, added that DeCubellis is a go-getter.
“It’s frustrating to watch our caseloads grow and costs grow and outcomes for children not improve,” he said. “She’s just charged straight ahead.”