Hennepin County will soon start hiring more than 100 new employees to bolster its struggling child protection efforts following unanimous approval Tuesday by the County Board.
The workforce expansion follows recommendations of a statewide child protection task force this spring. The task force, created by Gov. Mark Dayton in response to the Star Tribune’s reporting on child protection failures, called for more cases to be opened and investigated, while also lowering caseloads for social workers.
The new workers will start amid a string of recent child deaths and a report last month by a national child welfare organization that heavily criticized Hennepin County child protection, saying the department’s ability to protect children had been compromised.
The Star Tribune has found that since January 2014, at least six children whose caregivers had been reported to Hennepin County have died from abuse or neglect.
The county’s child protection unit is also under scrutiny by the state Department of Human Services. In a June 19 letter to the county, DHS Commissioner Lucinda Jesson wrote that her agency will implement an action plan to improve the county department because of recent child deaths and the high rates of county children suffering chronic abuse.
In a response letter sent June 30, Rex Holzemer, the assistant county administrator for human services, agreed that the department needed to improve, and touted the additional workers as a step toward that goal. Sixty of the new employees will be child protection social workers, six will be supervisors and 30 will serve as assistants and support staff. Seven more will do legal work.
Beginning next year, the county expects that expansion will cost $8.5 million, with the state covering about $5 million. Hennepin’s chief financial officer, David Lawless, said this is the largest hiring he’s seen through a board resolution in his 26 years with the county.
The Casey Family Programs report released in June found, among other things, that 10 percent of maltreated children in the county endured more abuse within a year, compared to 5 percent of maltreated children statewide. Abuse reports were often ignored by the agency to reduce caseloads and its budget, a Casey director told the board in late June. The county’s top child protection official denied that claim.
The Casey report recommended 23 reforms, including that the county should “initiate a re-visioning for its child protection system.” The County Board on Tuesday also approved creating a child protection oversight committee to ensure that the reforms take place. The committee will consist of board members, community members and people with child welfare expertise.
The board also directed Hennepin County staff to create a data unit to report on child safety and ensure that all abuse reports are handled by county staff.
County Commissioner Mike Opat said when he has spoken with judges and police chiefs about child protection, “the deeper you get into it, the worse it is.”