Hennepin County’s struggling child protection agency got a boost Tuesday as the County Board gave preliminary approval to add nearly 100 new employees, but commissioners cautioned it was the first of many needed reforms.
“If this passes as it is, it should be considered a failure of this board to act,” said Commissioner Mike Opat. “There needs to be a lot more here.”
Six children whose caregivers were known to child protection have died in Hennepin County since 2014, including two this month. A study by Casey Family Programs released last week found that 10 percent of abused children in Hennepin County endured more abuse within a year, compared with 5 percent of children statewide.
The report blamed budget cuts and department leaders for the problems, saying the Casey team “found a notable lack of trust of agency leadership and a deeply felt view that leadership has little concern or care for employees’ well-being.”
Some child protection workers refused to take part in the Casey study because they feared retribution, the report said.
The board is set to discuss that report on Thursday. Commissioner Linda Higgins said the board will examine all areas of child protection after the review.
“Leadership is one of the aspects we’ll look at,” Higgins said. “We’ll be making changes as necessary.”
The criticisms from social workers in the Casey report were the result of inadequate funding and unrealistic expectations, said Assistant County Administrator Rex Holzemer, who oversees child protection.
Holzemer said some changes have already been made. Twenty caseworkers were hired last year, and there has been a complete turnover in the agency’s managers in the past two years, he said.
But the 155 county caseworkers are struggling to keep up with the rising number of abuse reports, Holzemer said. Last year the county received 15,500 reports. This year, that number is expected to approach 18,000.
All of the new employees will be hired by the end of the year and will be working on cases by February 2016, Holzemer said. Of the 98 new employees, 60 will be social workers, while the rest will be supervisors, clerical and assistant staff.
The Hennepin County attorney’s office will also hire five new employees to work with child protection.
The county’s decision to beef up its child protection department was motivated not only by the Casey report, but also by the Star Tribune’s reporting on the system’s failures statewide. In response to those stories, Gov. Mark Dayton formed a task force that recommended child protection agencies across the state respond to more cases while reducing caseloads. The Legislature approved $52 million to pay for the reforms.
Hennepin County will pay $3.6 million for the new hires next year.
Commissioner Peter McLaughlin said the board has not acted quickly enough to address problems in the agency.
“The county needs to own the problems that were identified and figure out how to fix them,” McLaughlin said. “This is a fundamental responsibility. There have been recent cases where the system hasn’t worked.”
On June 10, 2-year-old Sophia O’Neill died, allegedly after being kicked and stomped to death by her mother’s boyfriend, 17-year-old Cody Feran-Baum. Growing up, Feran-Baum was himself a victim of child abuse that resulted in investigation by social workers. More recently, Feran-Baum was suspected of beating Sophia in February, but the girl’s father blamed child protection for failing to investigate.
Last week, 3-year-old Corrianah Wright was found at the bottom of a cloudy Brooklyn Park swimming pool. Corrianah was living with her mother, Mykeisha Wright, but was under the protective supervision of Hennepin County because of previous abuse allegations made against Wright and the girl’s father.
The commissioners are expected to take their final vote on the child protection spending in early July.