Tragic injuries and deaths among children supposedly shielded by Minnesota’s county-administered child protection system were much in the news in 2014 and 2015. Yet they were only the most heartbreaking traces of a less visible problem: In the past decade, the number of children experiencing crises requiring government intervention has grown at a galloping pace.
Consider Hennepin County’s experience. Since 2009 — while the county’s population has increased by just 4.5 percent — it’s seen a doubling of the number of child protection reports, findings of maltreatment and foster care placements.
As befits the state’s largest county, the Hennepin County Board has taken this problem seriously. Already in 2015, with help from its share of the 2015 Legislature’s $52 million statewide boost in child protection funding, it authorized hiring 103 more social workers and staffers in the county attorney’s office to ease caseloads. At the same time, it appointed a blue-ribbon task force to recommend changes that might reduce the need for government action to spare children from abuse or neglect.
That task force’s recommendations are in hand and ready for initial action next week by the County Board as it sets its 2017 budget. Commissioner Mike Opat, the task force’s co-chair, will ask fellow board members for a $5 million down payment on a plan to seek up to $13.3 million in recurring funding for a new approach to securing children’s well-being.
The recommended change, in an nutshell: Instead of responding to abuse and neglect only after they occur, the county will also attempt to identify children at risk and intervene before crises develop. The recommendations include employing a larger staff, available 24/7; improving coordination between child protection workers and other social service providers; and monitoring children’s well-being for longer periods.
That’s a larger and, at least initially, costlier task than the county has traditionally performed. But if the preventive approach succeeds, it stands to reduce costs — and save lives — in the long run. And it would deserve to be replicated in some fashion in the state’s other 86 counties.
That makes the Hennepin effort a pilot project worthy of partial state funding. The county says it will seek a 50-50 partnership with the state in paying for a demonstration effort. The 2017 Legislature should supply those funds, and use its investment to enlist Hennepin County professionals in adapting and conveying their best practices to other counties.
State participation is justified for one other reason. It would call wider attention to the plight of vulnerable children whose suffering too often escapes notice. Opat said that his conclusion from the task force’s work is that while spending more money for county-based protective services is warranted, money alone can’t protect children from harm.
“This can’t be a government-only solution,” Opat said. “The societal expectation has to be stronger that every parent has a responsibility to care for their children, and that everyone has a duty to speak up if they see that responsibility not being met. This has to be a societal change.” It does — but as Opat is demonstrating, it’s the kind of change that government leaders can spur.