If you read the headline in the April 13 Star Tribune on how child-abuse reports in Minnesota rose by 25 percent in 2016, straining the state’s child-protection system — and asked, “Didn’t we already deal with this problem?” you wouldn’t have been far off the mark.

The article reported that 39,500 Minnesota children were suspected of being abused or neglected, according to the state Department of Human Services (DHS); 2016 was the second straight year of sharp increases in such reports.

What has shocked many Minnesotans, however, is that these increases follow the 2015 Legislature’s enactment of major reforms to the state’s child-protection system, including increased state funding. The legislation reflected recommendations of a child-protection task force appointed by Gov. Mark Dayton following a series of Star Tribune investigative reports.

Does the spike in abuse reports indicate that the legislation was ineffective, or that the task force didn’t make the right recommendations? Not at all. The state certainly has taken important steps, but much more is still needed.

Reforms to the system should be considered in light of two factors: funding, and the standards set by the state for child-protection services. Lawmakers addressed both of those areas in 2015, but not completely.

The 2015 legislation increased state funding by $26 million annually. That was welcome, but it only helped restore child protection staffing to levels seen in 2002, before cuts to child protection funding by previous administrations. Nor did it restore the services that case workers need to manage abuse and neglect cases, including therapy, child care or transportation. Those also had been cut since 2002.

In addition, the 2015 funding did not take into account caseload increases among county social-service workers. Such increases were predictable in light of the reforms mandated in 2015, the second factor in the equation.

A DHS representative suggested that “heightened awareness” was a reason for the increase in reports. That may be a contributor, but a more likely explanation is that counties are now required, rather than encouraged, to follow state guidelines on screening such reported cases for further investigation.

The 39,500 reports in 2016 represent those cases “screened in” for a child-protection response. Historically, Minnesota has screened in only about 30 percent of actual maltreatment reports for an assessment or investigation — less than half the national average of 62 percent. The numbers, therefore, suggest that counties probably received many more maltreatment reports.

The state, and its counties, must therefore respond with more funding. To be sure, some are stepping up: Hennepin County, for example, recently increased funding for these services by $13.2 million, hiring nearly 100 more workers.

And, along with funding, the state and counties must do more to implement the recommendations made by the task force behind the 2015 law. Yes, more cases are being investigated, but officials haven’t implemented some of the task force recommendations because they disagreed with them.

One, for example, would require that when a child is suspected of being abused, he or she should be interviewed apart from parents or guardians. In many cases, however, child-protection workers continue to follow the old practice of interviewing children in the presence of their parents, who may have been the actual perpetrators of abuse.

Another provision recommends that caseworkers respond to reports in person before determining if they merit investigation. Unfortunately, many such decisions are made solely on the basis of a phone call.

To finish the job begun in 2015, the state needs to fully implement the reforms and the Legislature needs to fund them adequately.

The statistics released by DHS indicate that our state is far from having an effective child-protection system. For that to happen, state and county officials must have the resources they need, and those responsible for child-protection enforcement must do their jobs.

 

Patrick Hirigoyen is chairman of the board of directors of Safe Passage for Children of Minnesota, which advocates for reforms in the state’s child-protection system.