The first of several planned overhauls in the state's child protection system would withhold some county dollars until caseworkers prove they can respond early and often to abuse reports, marking the first time such funding in Minnesota is performance-based.
The plan, unveiled before a key Senate panel Wednesday, comes in the wake of sweeping reforms to the state's child protection system, the first of which were passed unanimously by the Legislature and signed into law by Gov. Mark Dayton in March.
The legislation stems from preliminary recommendations by the Governor's Task Force on the Protection of Children, launched after Star Tribune reports on the death of 4-year-old Eric Dean, who was beaten to death by his stepmother despite 15 reports to Pope County child protection. The new laws will place child health and safety over keeping the family intact when social workers make decisions on how to intervene. It also reverses a law passed last year that barred social workers from taking previously screened-out reports into consideration during investigations of suspected abuse.
With greater demands come an influx of cash to pay for them. Dayton's supplemental budget includes $22 million for additional child protection staffing statewide. For each county, half will be distributed based on the population of children in the county, 25 percent will be distributed on the number of "screened-in" abuse reports, while another quarter would be distributed based on the number of open child protection cases in the county. Regardless of numbers, no county would be awarded less than $75,000 annually — guaranteeing a funding boost for at least 30 counties. An additional $10 million would be distributed in a similar manner for third-party services like family counseling or mental health screening. Sen. Kathy Sheran, DFL-Mankato, author of child protection measures and a task force member, said that spending among the counties was disproportionate — from $99 per child in some counties to $600 in others.
"We want to make sure that we recognize the commitment that some counties made despite deficits and cuts, while recognizing that other counties may have taken money that could have been used somewhere else," she said.
Each year, 20 percent of each county's money would be withheld as a "performance allocation." To receive it, counties must have timely face-to-face contact with at least 90 percent of children in screened-in abuse reports. Second, case managers must make monthly face-to-face visits to children in foster care and kids in the home receiving child protection services 90 percent of the time.
"The concept there is that unless they're doing the work, they shouldn't get the full allocation, and the work required by the Task Force is that they see children early — right away if there's an allegation of abuse, and they see constantly if those children are in need of child protective services," said Ralph McQuarter, director of management operations for Children and Family Services at the Department of Human Services. "We want to see outcomes for children being improved, not just workers showing up at the door and being visible."
Last year, nearly a quarter of cases in Minnesota would have failed to meet those criteria. According to DHS statistics, initial contact was made within 24 hours in cases where serious harm was alleged just 76 percent of the time. Statewide, monthly face-to-face visits with a caseworker were also completed 76 percent of the time.
The new standards have broad support from the counties that came to sort out the new terms with DHS, said Rochelle Westlund, a health and human services policy analyst with the Association of Minnesota Counties.
"While not typical, counties have some experience with performance incentives in other human services program areas, and we are confident that counties will strive to achieve these standards." she said.
Sheran said after years of drastic cuts to the state's child protective services during lean years, it's time to recommit to child protection with increases in staffing and services. She said incentive-based funding will likely motivate counties to do better.
"It's our way of giving them a sense of direction of what's important," she said. "It supports the recommendations of the task force, and communicates that by putting money behind it."