Two children have died this year in incidents involving parental maltreatment in Hennepin County, just as the county is increasing its child protection workers and overhauling its system to better protect children and provide help sooner to families.

County leaders hope that more staffers and new programs will help prevent child abuse while shrinking the number of child protection reports, which reached a record high of 20,000 in 2016 — nearly double the number from 2008.

With midyear approaching, the county has hired half of its projected 108 new child protection workers for 2017. Last week, the County Board approved a new leader, Michelle Farr, to head up reforms.

And for the first time, the county is transferring 18 jobs from child protection to the county attorney’s office so that paralegals — more adept with legal work — can do CHIPS (child in need of protection or services) petitions rather than social workers.

So far, caseloads for child protection workers have decreased slightly and staff retention has increased.

“I’d rather be further along,” said County Commissioner Mike Opat, who co-chaired a child protection oversight committee. But “I feel like we’ve made good progress in getting it set up.”

A few years ago, a string of child deaths along with heightened concern about child abuse spurred officials to ask a national child welfare organization to assess Hennepin County’s system.

That 2015 report by the Casey Family Programs recommended that the county undertake 23 reforms, including “a re-visioning for its child protection system.”

Hennepin County wasn’t alone. A statewide child protection task force, created by Gov. Mark Dayton in response to the Star Tribune’s reporting on child protection failures, recommended that agencies across the state respond to more cases. The Legislature approved $52 million for reforms.

Hennepin County officials created a child protection oversight committee, replaced this year by an 18-member child well-being advisory committee. That group will meet for the first time Wednesday to review the progress the county has made so far, the first year of a multiyear, $26 million plan to boost programs and staffing.

County leaders want to reduce the number of reports by connecting families faster to services like mental health, instead of waiting to intervene after abuse happens. That means taking child protection calls that previously had been screened out because they didn’t involve abuse or neglect.

County officials say that the rising number of child protection reports is likely due to state changes that have led to more screening, as well as more community awareness and media coverage about child abuse and neglect.

Caseloads improving

For now, the county is focused on ramping up staffing to help overwhelmed social workers. It’s spending half of the planned $26 million on staffers, drawing some of the money from a contingency fund.

Nearly 50 new child protection workers have been hired this year, helping reduce caseloads to 15 cases a month per field worker, a cut of about 20 percent. The county’s goal is to reduce that number even more by the end of the year and eventually get workers’ loads down to eight to 10 cases a month.

The state standard is 10 cases and the national standard is 12 cases.

“Our caseloads are still above where we want them to be,” said Jennifer DeCubellis, the deputy Hennepin County administrator who oversees child protection. “It certainly doesn’t feel like relief to our staff. But they are improving.”

More hires won’t just benefit staff members. She said it should result in children being placed in permanent homes faster and families making more quality contacts with social workers.

Last year, eight children involved in the county’s child protection services died. The highest number of child deaths in recent years was 11 in 2015.

“In an overwhelmed system, you go in crisis mode,” DeCubellis said, cautioning about drawing any connection between child deaths and the county’s system. “I don’t know we’ll ever get to zero [child deaths]. But what a lofty goal to try to get there.”

Community help

There’s a lot at stake.

Hennepin County is expected to spend $88 million on child protection this year. Of that, $40 million is going to foster care and out-of-home placement, $6 million more than last year.

So far this year, the county has shifted staffing to respond to child protection reports at all hours, making it the only metro county to do so and giving Hennepin County the only completely county-run 24/7 response in the state. In August, Farr, a child protection leader in Washington, D.C., will become the county’s director of child well-being, a new position designed to lead reforms.

NorthPoint Health & Wellness Center in north Minneapolis, which is run by a county partnership, is also looking to start a “cultural navigators” pilot program that would partner with the county to have community members help at-risk families before and after the county intervenes. And the county is planning to better connect with schools, police and other groups, hoping the community will come together to help keep kids safe by better helping single parents or new parents.

“We don’t as a society ask how to help the new parents,” DeCubellis said. “That kind of community involvement would make a huge difference.”