Hennepin County’s child protection agency has been ignoring child abuse reports to reduce caseloads and control its budget, a leader of a national child welfare group told the County Board on Thursday.
Dee Wilson, a director of child welfare services for Casey Family Programs, also told the board that the county’s most common response to a child abuse report is to screen it out, meaning that a family is never visited and services never offered. Neglect cases are also given low priority, rarely get investigated, and then are often closed without doing anything to help children, a stark contrast to many other child protection agencies, Wilson said.
Wilson and other members of the organization spent months studying Hennepin’s system and released a report critical of the agency last week. Wilson’s presentation Thursday offered a more harsh assessment than what was written.
The county’s child protection chief rejected Wilson’s most startling claim, that reports of abuse were rejected for convenience. The county follows state statutes and guidelines when considering how to handle a report, said Janine Moore, area director of children and family services.
“We have never made decisions based on caseloads,” Moore said.
Moore said about 30 percent of families reported for neglect are offered services, while the rest of the reports are either screened out or closed without helping the children.
County Commissioner Marion Greene, who heads the board’s Human Services committee, said Casey’s presentation was a “call to action.”
“Today dialed up the urgency,” Greene said. “We have got to change the way we protect kids.”
Hennepin County’s child protection procedures differ from state and nationwide practices in other key areas, Casey leaders told the board. There is no specialized criteria for what to do when abuse of an infant is reported, and the percent of those cases accepted to protect the children is far lower than national averages.
“If there is a call for children under 1, that is cause for major concern,” said David Sanders, a Casey executive and former manager of Hennepin County’s child protection agency. Sanders cited a California study showing that the most frequent predictor of infant death from abuse is being reported to child protection.
The county also does far worse than the rest of the state and country when it comes to children being removed from their homes and then returned within a month. What that likely shows, Sanders said, was that children should have been kept in out-of-home care longer or never removed in the first place.
Commissioner Peter McLaughlin said that was one of his biggest concerns about Hennepin County’s system.
“They get the trauma of being removed from a home, but not much is done to help that situation,” he said.
Casey has done similar research with other child protection agencies numerous times, Wilson said, but he was “puzzled by the degree of difficulty” it took to do the Hennepin County report.
Though they were granted anonymity, social workers still feared retribution from leadership if it was discovered they were participating in the Casey study, Wilson said.
“You have a very fractured and fragmented staff,” Wilson said. “There was a lot of fear and anxiety.”
Moore said the child protection managers have never threatened to retaliate against any workers for participating in the study. She said workers may have been afraid to complain about caseloads because they didn’t want to be perceived as unable to do the job. She blamed much of the low morale of the workforce on media scrutiny.