A stronger child protection system in Minnesota would require better oversight, increased collaboration between social workers and law enforcement, and more accountability to the public, a task force was told Friday.
Dr. David Sanders was director of Hennepin County’s child protection unit until 2003, and now serves as the executive vice president for Casey Family Programs, which works to “safely reduce the number of children in foster care.” Last year Sanders was appointed by President Obama to serve as chairman of the Federal Commission to Eliminate Child Abuse and Neglect Fatalities.
At a task force convened by Gov. Mark Dayton in response to child protection failures, Sanders said there is no “silver bullet” to improve the system. “What we know to reduce child maltreatment fatalities is actually very limited,” he said.
Sanders left Hennepin County to take over as the head of the Los Angeles child protection agency, where he found many of the same issues that Minnesota faces today: overwhelmed social workers, a system closed to public scrutiny, and no data that showed outcomes for children in the system.
Sanders recommended the task force make several changes, starting with “being crystal-clear” on what a successful system would look like.
“Make sure you’re measuring success, and using measures publicly,” he said.
He also said that child protection should have oversight independent of the agencies and the state Department of Human Services, which currently performs those tasks.
“It can’t be oversight through and by the child protection system,” Sanders said.
On Sunday, the Star Tribune reported on shortcomings in the state’s process of examining child deaths whose families were known to the system. There is little evidence that those reviews are stopping child protection failures, and the reviews are frequently sealed from public scrutiny, despite a federal law requiring more disclosure.
Sanders said that more transparency was vital in improving the child protection system.
“It’s a public system, and the public has to have information,” he said.
He also said the state needs to study what happens to children when abuse reports do not lead to any services provided. He cited a California study that showed the best predictor of child fatalities was if a prior abuse report was made to child protection, whether or not that report resulted in any action taken by the agency.
Sanders also stressed the need for child protection to collaborate with law enforcement and the courts. Without that, he said, “I haven’t seen an ability to move forward.”
The task force meets again Dec. 4, when it is expected to discuss the initial recommendations members would make to improve the system. Preliminary recommendations are due to the governor and Legislature by the end of the year.