Extra money that Hennepin County poured into its Child Protective Services has paid off, officials said, with caseworkers seeing a reduction by nearly half in the number of families they work with at a time.

County child protection workers now handle an average of 11 cases at a time, down from 18 to 20 cases per worker in 2015, according to Jodi Wentland, assistant county administrator for human services.

Caseload reduction was a primary goal when county officials set out to overhaul the program after a Casey Family report in 2015 found the system overloaded and underfunded.

The County Board plowed money into the child welfare system with the goal of reducing staff caseloads and employee turnover. The county spent $122 million on child protection last year, up from $74 million in 2015.

“We just spent a lot of time and money on it to redesign the system from being simply a reactive one to one where we’re concerned about a child’s well-being before there’s a report of neglect,” said Hennepin County Commissioner Mike Opat, who heads a child well-being advisory committee created to oversee the transformation.

From fall 2015 through fall 2017, the number of caseworkers in the county rose by nearly 70%, from 385 to 647, Wentland said.

The new approach to child protection services is centered on a long-term strategy focused on human services. By working on caseload reduction and staff development now, Wentland said, the department will have more time later to work on the root causes of child displacement before a crisis point is reached.

Removing children from their homes is highly traumatic for the child, Wentland said. So the new approach includes intervening sooner by dealing with food and housing insecurity, parenting training, transportation and drug addiction.

Lowering the caseload “allows intensive support to the families,” Wentland said.

She added that caseload reduction is yet another sign that the county is moving in the right direction.

“We’re never going to not have a need for child protection,” she said, but officials hope to be able to spend more money on early intervention and support to reduce the number of children removed from the home.

A report last year took the first comprehensive look at Hennepin County’s efforts since 2015, finding lower staff turnover. At the time, calls coming into the county’s 24/7 response center had not yet been reduced.

Rich Gehrman, executive director of Safe Passage for Children of Minnesota, a child protection advocacy group, said the county’s changes are significant.

“It’s very hard to change the culture of an organization,” Gehrman said. “[Hennepin County has] been making employees feel like they’ve been supported, and training and management is backing them up, and that makes a world of difference in terms of the results that you get.”

More needs to be done to tackle racial disparities in the child protection system, said Commissioner Angela Conley, who heads the County Board’s health and human services committee.

“We really need to be cognizant of the fact that these are good things happening, but we have a serious crisis in the fact that black and Native American children are way overrepresented in our child protection system,” she said.

Though Hennepin County reported a 12% reduction in reports to child protection in 2018, Conley said disparity reduction efforts need to continue. That can be as simple as working with community partners to increase services.

“We have to think about kinship differently, we have to think about culturally responsible services, we have to look at what the cultural makeup of our child protection workers look like,” Conley said. “Internally we’re changing, and then externally we’re bringing folks to the table that have traditionally not been there.”