Hennepin County wants to launch a $26 million program to protect at-risk children, preventing abuse rather than waiting to act until it happens.

The new model reflects a national trend of moving child protection services from crisis mode to responding before abuse takes place.

No longer will a child need to endure maltreatment before they get social services in Minnesota's most populous county, an unprecedented step in the state.

"This is really a profound transformation of the system," said Jennifer DeCubellis, deputy county administrator of health and human services.

County officials on Thursday will unveil the three- to five-year plan, the result of a committee that's met for a year to come up with ideas for reforming the system.

After the County Board discusses the proposal, it will be asked to approve $13.3 million in added costs for 2017 — part of a $26 million plan over the next three years that would add nearly 250 new county staff and create a new committee to continue the work.

"It's a really crisis-driven system right now," DeCubellis said. "We really need to change that paradigm."

Those costs will include additional staff to reduce child protection caseloads, more staff for a parent support outreach program that helps connect parents with the right services, a new child well-being director to head up the initiative and a new "transformation team."

County leaders say that, in the long term, the new model could reduce the number of children who are abused or neglected, drive down the cost of millions of dollars spent on foster care and out-of-home placement and, most important, save children's lives.

It was a string of child deaths and heightened concern about child abuse that spurred county officials to ask a national child welfare organization last year to assess the county's system.

That 2015 report by the Casey Family Programs found, among other things, that 10 percent of maltreated children in the county endured more abuse within a year, compared to 5 percent of maltreated children statewide. It recommended the county undertake 23 reforms, including "a re-visioning for its child protection system."

Hennepin County wasn't alone. A statewide child protection task force, created by Gov. Mark Dayton in response to the Star Tribune's reporting on child protection failures, recommended that child protection agencies across the state respond to more cases. The Legislature approved $52 million to pay for reforms.

The Casey report prompted the Hennepin County Board to create the child protection oversight committee, which held its final meeting last month. Since then, the county has hired nearly 100 new employees to bolster child protection efforts. County leaders say that of the additional 247 new staff members to be hired in the next three years, 217 will be employed to help reduce caseloads.

Hennepin County already has shifted staffing to respond to reports at all hours, the only metro county to do so.

"This is a game-changer," Ann Ahlstrom, co-chair of the child protection oversight committee, said at its final meeting.

Next steps

Hennepin County has had 15,400 child protection reports so far this year, but county leaders expect to end the year with 21,000 — double the number from 2008 and if so, would be the highest number in the county's history. This year the county is also spending $6 million more on foster care and out of home placement for children.

"Somehow we've got to turn that around," said County Commissioner Mike Opat.

Shifting to a model that is focused on the child's well-being, and that works with families before abuse occurs, could help reduce the number of cases, county leaders believe. Even if no abuse or maltreatment is found after a child protection report is filed, county officials want to connect that high-risk family to services already in place, from mental health to employment.

The new model features new initiatives, especially for the smallest children. Children from infants to 5-year-olds — even those reported to child protection but normally screened out — will be connected with a face-to-face assessment.

And the county is in the second year of a pilot program working with infants and toddlers in out-of-home placement to repair or create proper attachment between the caregiver and child.

The county also wants to improve communication with school districts and police departments. A pilot program in Brooklyn Park that could start as soon as Dec. 1 would allow the county's child protection workers to share some information from safety plans drafted by the case worker with police officers.

That would give officers critical information, such as whether a boyfriend shouldn't be at the home or alcohol shouldn't be used, and would help police know when to notify child protection workers, said Brooklyn Park Police Chief Craig Enevoldsen.

"It's just another tool for us to make the best decision we can to ensure the safety of a child," said Enevoldsen, the only law enforcement officer on the oversight committee.

Different systems — schools, police and government — that often operate in isolation need to coordinate and share data in order to better help families in need, DeCubellis added.

"There's also been a culture of blame; no one has owned the solution," she said. "What we're saying in Hennepin County is, we're going to own this."

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