Hennepin County's Child Protection Services is placing more children with relatives and fewer in shelters a year after overhauling its program, though its caseload continues to grow.

A report presented Thursday by Deputy Administrator Jennifer DeCubellis shows that the state's most populous county has made significant strides in strengthening its services for abused or neglected children but still needs to reduce the number entering the system.

"We thought it was unsustainable how we were doing business," said DeCubellis, who is leading the program's reform. "Over the last couple of months, the data is starting to give us that sense of hope that the system is starting to turn."

The report is the first comprehensive look at the progress the county has made since it adopted a new approach for handling children facing neglect and abuse last year. The county's system was under scrutiny in 2015 after a Casey Family Programs report found it to be overloaded and underfunded.

Problems were similar across the state, leading the Legislature to approve $52 million for programs to improve treatment. Hennepin County has since vastly increased its spending on child protection, from $73.6 million in 2015 to $100.5 million last year, according to Thursday's report. The program has a $122 million budget this year, DeCubellis said.

That spending has led to an increase in staffing. The county has more than 460 child protection employees, up 42 percent from 2016. At the same time, employee turnover has gone down by 42 percent.

But that hasn't reduced the number of reports coming to the county's 24/7 response center. More than 20,380 reports were made to child protection services last year, 16 percent more than 2015 and almost twice as many as in 2009.

More than 2,640 children were in foster care this year through June, nearly matching the total number for all of 2016. About 3,180 children were placed in foster care last year.

However, shelter placements are declining, according to the report. The number of such placements dropped by 26 percent from January 2017 to July 2018.
And more children are being placed with relatives, up 31 percent from 2016 to 2017. As of June, about 1,480 children had been placed in a relative's home this year, more than in any other setting.

One example is Christina McDonald, whose daughter had four children and was in an abusive relationship. For McDonald, taking her grandchildren out of an unstable environment was her only option. She adopted the children and took them into her Minneapolis home in 2015. Though it hasn't always been easy, she said she doesn't regret the decision.

"When they're your blood and that's your family, you would want to see them nowhere else," McDonald said. "You just make the sacrifices."
But county officials are wary of calling the rise in relative placement an improvement.

"Kinship placement is not nirvana," said Commissioner Mike Opat, who chairs a child well-being advisory committee formed last year. "There are a lot of relatives that have their own struggles."

Finding a path

Hennepin County's program in recent years has collected data and studied how to reduce the number of children entering the system, officials said.

"It was a crisis. We didn't have a path," DeCubellis said. "The biggest change is to be able to give some reassurances … that we have a path forward, that we are all aligned."

That included removing some of the responsibility from child protection alone and focusing more on the causes that could lead to maltreatment by parents, including substance abuse, unemployment and housing.

For the first time last year, drug abuse became the leading reason why children were removed from their homes, moving ahead of allegations of neglect, according to the report.

DeCubellis told the County Board that emphasis needs to be placed on aspects of child welfare that include its response to the opioid crisis and the growing homeless encampment along Hiawatha Avenue in south Minneapolis.

Black and American Indian children continue to be disproportionately put into the system, according to the report. DeCubellis said the county needs to first address root causes, and Opat said he hopes child protection services soon adopts a "colorblind" approach.

State experts on child protection and welfare expressed some satisfaction with Hennepin County's progress.

In a statement, Human Services Commissioner Emily Piper said that the county's efforts were encouraging but emphasized "that we all still have much work ahead and we must strive for continued improvements in our work with Minnesota's most vulnerable children and families."

Rich Gehrman, the executive director of Safe Passage for Children of Minnesota, a child protection advocacy organization, said that of all the metro counties Hennepin is making the biggest investment in child protection. He said he was especially impressed with the decrease in employee turnover.

"It shows that they're doing a better job with the workforce and making it a better place to be," he said.

Traci LaLiberte, executive director of the University of Minnesota's Center for Advanced Studies in Child Welfare and a member of the advisory committee, said that Hennepin County was undertaking a "monumentally difficult" task.

"They're going to prioritize getting this right, better than they have in the past," she said.

LaLiberte compared the program to an ocean liner, one that will take a long time to get on the correct path.

"The reality is, Hennepin is trying to work with kids and families with incredibly complex issues in a system that has tremendous complexities of its own," she said.

"Strong leadership and strong management is what they really need in order to set a course, stay the course and see change."