Washington County will hire several more social workers to cope with a soaring number of child abuse and neglect cases resulting from new state requirements in how those cases are reported.
The county division that oversees child protection and welfare cases projects 929 new reports this year, compared with 631 last year. The increase began after a state task force appointed by Gov. Mark Dayton issued findings in March that called for 93 changes to child protection laws.
To cope with the caseload, the County Board last week approved hiring five child protection workers and a supervisor, and will increase three half-time jobs to full time.
County taxpayers won't pay the costs, however. A state allocation of $582,400 will be awarded this month, and another $145,600 in February if the county can show it's meeting state requirements, Sarah Amundson, a child protection division manager, told commissioners.
For years, Washington County commissioners criticized state mandates that required programs but didn't fully fund them. State and federal mandates control about 80 percent of the county budget.
"I think this is an example of how we want to work with the state of Minnesota," said Commissioner Karla Bigham, a former legislator. "They are actually coming with money with strings attached, so we are meeting benchmarks, so there is accountability."
Another commissioner, board chairman Gary Kriesel, said he wanted to make clear to county residents that the steep rise in cases didn't result from shortcomings in how the county monitors them.
"It's important for the public to know that those guidelines are not the county's but they're mandated by the state and federal governments," he said. "I don't want people thinking the county was asleep at the switch. The employees that work in the child protection arena are often distressed that they can't do more."
The state task force that produced the recommendations concluded that investigating a broader range of child abuse reports would result in substantially heavier caseloads. Dayton appointed the task force in October after a series of stories in the Star Tribune uncovered evidence that at least 58 children in Minnesota had died from maltreatment since 2005, even when public agencies had been warned that those children were in danger from caregivers.
Possibly the most significant change, Amundson said, is that child protection workers now can consider family history when screening cases — meaning that more children will receive services that might involve court intervention.
High-profile cases, such as the alleged murder of 10-year-old Barway Collins by his father in Hennepin County, have stirred people to action. So has football star Adrian Peterson hitting his son with a wooden switch, Amundson said.
"As a professional in this field it's been fascinating to watch public perception," she said. "On one hand, so many people are outraged that more isn't done, and then you have this Adrian Peterson case that is so highly publicized, the famous Vikings player, and a lot of people who felt he had every right to physically discipline his child despite all of those horrific injuries."
In Washington County, most child protection cases involve physical and sexual abuse. Less common is child neglect, which involves such problems as truancy, lack of food and unsafe living environments such as garbage houses.
Amundson said many child protection workers have been handling 15 to 17 cases at a time — too many to meet new state requirements of timely face-to-face contact with at least 90 percent of child victims.
"If the caseloads get too big, they're just running," she said of protection workers. "I want people making good decisions, not stressed out about seeing the next family. Ultimately we need to make sure kids are safe."