A dramatic surge in child maltreatment reports is putting new strains on Minnesota's child protection system, as local agencies struggle with soaring caseloads and stagnant funding, according to state and county officials.

Maltreatment reports to county and tribal governments rose 25 percent last year, with 39,531 children suspected of being abused and neglected, according to state data released Tuesday. This marks the second straight year of sharp increases since outrage over the death of 4-year-old Eric Dean at the hands of his abusive stepmother sparked far-reaching reforms of the child protection system.

State and county officials attribute the surge to greater publicity surrounding child abuse among mandated reporters — people who are required under state law to report maltreatment — as well as an increase in neglect fueled by the epidemic of prescription drug abuse.

All told, 26 Minnesota children died from maltreatment last year, the highest level in five years. Seven of the children were known to child protection workers before their deaths, state officials said.

"This reflects that we have a lot of families across this state that are under stress," said James Koppel, assistant commissioner for children and family services at the Minnesota Department of Human Services. "We have to deal with this problem head-on."

But across much of the state, local funding for child protection has not kept pace with the rise in abuse and neglect reports, resulting in virtually unmanageable caseloads for many social workers. In some Minnesota counties, the average caseload has reached nearly 30 cases per child-protection worker — three times the standard set by Gov. Mark Dayton's 2015 task force on child protection.

One consequence, say county administrators, is higher turnover of child protection workers, who are feeling emotionally drained.

"We have never experienced anything quite like this," said Paul Fleissner, director of community services at Olmsted County, which includes Rochester. "The intensity and scrutiny involved with this work can be overwhelming ... and we haven't seen this level of [staff] turnover in a very long time."

The combination of rising child deaths and climbing caseloads has prompted state and county agencies to put a greater emphasis on abuse prevention. The Department of Human Services is pushing a package of initiatives in the 2017 Legislature aimed at improving stability for children from troubled homes. It includes increased state benefits for children under age 6 who are adopted out of foster care, and a proposal to expand the state's capacity to monitor local child protection agencies.

Together the proposals would cost about $20 million in the coming biennium, but are not included in the spending bills making their way through the Republican-controlled Legislature. "The system we have is not preventing. It's responding," Koppel said. "We absolutely have to put more of an emphasis on prevention."

In Hennepin County, where reports of child abuse and neglect have nearly doubled since 2009, administrators are not waiting for state help. Last year, the county embarked on an ambitious $13 million overhaul of the county child protection system. As part of the effort, the county is hiring 108 child protection staff and investing millions of dollars in mental health and child care assistance programs aimed at preventing abuse.

Even with these investments, the county is struggling with high staff turnover and excessive caseloads for child-protection workers, said deputy Hennepin County administrator Jennifer DeCubellis, who oversees child protection. "Incrementally, the system is in crisis," she said. "But we can't regulate our way out of this. We need to shrink the size of child protection by investing in children and communities."

Chris Serres • 612-673-4308 Twitter: @chrisserres