Hennepin County’s far-thinking overhaul of its Child Protection Services (CPS) system is already showing results, pointing the way toward a better model for protecting endangered children.
It started when the county came under fire for a system that was splitting at the seams, with too-heavy caseloads, staff burnout and instances where abuse was discovered too late.
The county’s response was twofold, and it’s instructive about the ways in which government can help — and sometimes unintentionally hurt. First, a serious infusion of funds made it possible to hire more case workers, reducing workloads that were far above average. Turnover dropped an astonishing 42 percent — critical when performing services that depend on developing trust with stressed-out families. Case workers were able to spend more time with families, more often able to reach extended family members and work with them on taking temporary care of endangered child relatives. Shelter placements fell by more than a fourth and “kin placements” rose by 17 percent.
Those are strong results, but that’s just the beginning. Deputy Administrator Jennifer DeCubellis, who is leading the overhaul, said the longer-range vision will shift CPS from the reactive model it’s been to a proactive one emphasizing “child well-being” over three to five years. The traditional model, DeCubellis said, engages once a child has been mistreated or is in serious danger. “We want a human services response earlier … before maltreatment happens,” she said.
Think of it as the difference between preventive medical services and waiting until health is so threatened that the next stop is the emergency room. The new model, DeCubellis said, will focus on identifying families with circumstances that indicate child endangerment may be imminent. Topping that list is parental drug addiction, which last year displaced neglect as the primary reason children are removed from their homes. “If we can get families in crisis before maltreatment occurs,” DeCubellis said, “we will see better outcomes and lower costs.”
If the first lesson from this is that money, correctly applied, can achieve results in fairly short order, the second lesson is that government regulations — however well-intended — can prove more of an obstacle than a help.
Soon the county will ask the state for statutory relief that gives CPS the flexibility to knit together support services that can lift a family out of crisis, whether that’s addiction recovery, mental health services or other necessities. There are rules that wind up disqualifying family members willing to take in minor relatives but who fall short of the ideal. Too often, families of color are overrepresented, contributing to the larger numbers of black and Indian children placed in foster care.
Many of these extended family members, in poverty themselves, need financial aid to be able to take on more children. “Right now they need to qualify as foster parents, with background checks, home studies, training,” DeCubellis said. They may not have homes large enough or may be prohibited by some previous nonviolent offense from years ago that has little bearing on their ability to provide a home for a child.
No one wants to relax the rules so much that children are jeopardized, but it’s worth looking at waivers that give the caseworkers closest to the situation some leeway in determining an appropriate placement.
The rules are such, DeCubellis said, “that our staff spends 60 percent of its time on paperwork. We need to spend 60 percent on getting kids and families out of the system. We need ways to move toward a child well-being model, and the rules are getting in our way.”
The county is working in part off models from other states, but DeCubellis said changes elsewhere often have come through legal intervention. Hennepin County was right to act before that tipping point, and to be open to innovation. Of course, such a model, with all its support, won’t save every child, every family. But it could save many. The Legislature should help ensure the county’s success.