In Harm's Way

A special report

For mom Tara Jerabek, child protection services is different this time.

Hennepin County boosted spending on child protection and added workers. The result: lower caseloads and far less repeat abuse. Now it must sustain this success.

For Tara Jerabek, child protection services have improved in Hennepin County. “It worked out a lot better.” For Tara Jerabek, child protection services have improved in Hennepin County. “It worked out a lot better.”
Jayah Whiting, 17, played with her little brother Jason Jr. Their parents, Tara Jerabek and Jason Whiting Sr., at left, say they've seen an improvement in how the county handles child protection.

Hennepin County reduced repeat abuse of kids. Are there lessons for the rest of Minnesota?

In Harm's Way

This four-part series explores how Minnesota’s child protection system failed to save some of the state’s most vulnerable residents.

Tara Jerabek's history with Hennepin County child protection dates back to 2015, when a report against her depicted a dangerous and chaotic environment for her young children.

The department that received the report was also struggling.

Budget cuts and skyrocketing maltreatment reports had left county child protection workers with unsustainable caseloads. A scathing review that year recommended extensive reforms. The county would soon face a class-action lawsuit claiming it was failing to protect children, and a series of suits stemming from the deaths of little girls.

Last fall, Jerabek's family landed back in the system after a report that she and her partner were using drugs and hadn't enrolled their children in school. This time, she said county workers seemed to have more time to devote to her family. They provided therapy and addiction help along with frequent drug tests, and they connected her son with autism services.

"I'd dealt with CPS a million times. I know this system. So it just, it worked out a lot better," Jerabek said. "Back in the day, they had no time at all."

Minnesota's largest child protection agency — which received more than 13,000 reports last year — continues to see repeated child abuse and fatalities. At least 86 Minnesota children have died since 2012 from maltreatment by a caregiver who had a history of neglect or abuse. About a third were in Hennepin County.

But reports of repeated maltreatment there have plummeted. In 2016, more than 15% of children who were maltreated in Hennepin County were victims of another substantiated or credible maltreatment report within a year, nearly three times as many as in the rest of the state. Last year, the county did better than the rest of Minnesota, with less than 5% of children seeing another such maltreatment report.

County staff, child safety advocates and community members said that while work remains, substantial changes are leading to better outcomes for many kids.

Child protection caseloads are down and staff levels are up. Employees receive extended training. More people are involved in deciding whether a maltreatment report merits investigation. Children in foster care are spending more time with relatives. And additional resources are aimed at preventing families from entering the system in the first place.

Attorney Dianne Heins has been rereading the cases of children involved in the class-action lawsuit she worked on against the county as a four-year settlement period draws to a close. She has repeatedly asked herself, "Would this child's story be different?"

For most, the answer was clear.

"The response and their experience with child protection would be different," Heins said. "And hopefully better."

Hennepin County's improvements could offer insights to other communities, said advisory committee members overseeing the changes. But, they said, sustaining that work is the next challenge.

Bigger staff, better training

Much of the change in Hennepin County comes back to two obvious — but essential — components: more money and more staff.

Hennepin County's spending on child well-being has jumped dramatically from $85 million in 2014. The Children and Family Services department currently has a $145 million budget and is budgeted for a roughly 600-person staff.

Typical caseloads gradually drop in Hennepin County

Child protection workers doing case management handle about 10 cases at a time, about a third less than in 2017.

That staff level has remained flat during the past five years after a 200-person boost from 2013 to 2017.

Like employers across the nation, Hennepin County is struggling with turnover and filling open jobs. But officials said a recent shift to a continuous hiring process, instead of waiting to fill positions once they open, is helping prevent workforce gaps that contributed to spikes in caseloads.

The county's caseloads far exceeded standards when a state task force recommended in 2015 that child protection case management workers should not juggle more than 10 cases. Hennepin County officials said at the time that ongoing case managers had 15 to 17 cases.

Their average caseload has dropped to 10, according to the most recent Children and Family Services annual report.

Child protection workers in Minnesota — many fresh out of college, some without a social work background — must insert themselves into the lives of families frequently struggling with poverty, mental health crises, substance use or homelessness. They participate in court hearings where judges determine families' futures. Their job involves high stakes, immense paperwork and long hours.

At Hennepin County, new workers undergo a two-month "induction" training process. A group of new co-workers experience the training together, helping build relationships that longtime social workers said are a critical source of support in a high-stress field.

On a recent fall afternoon, a cohort of about 20 new employees had just returned from lunch when they were handed small trash bags and told to put in their phone, wallet, keys, work badge and a personal item.

Trainers broke the group into "families" and spent the next hour shuttling them around a Lake Street office building with their plastic bags, pretending different office rooms were their foster homes.

The new hires leaned into the role, becoming increasingly agitated as they were moved from place to place, encountering a mix of friendly and unwelcoming spaces. Two "siblings" decided to run away after one family removed and did not return their belongings.

Angela Lamb-Onayiga, a program manager for staff development, listened as new hires debriefed after the exercise. It was a far cry from her start in the field decades ago, when she received minimal training and was told, "Figure it out. Ask other people around you."

The induction program is unique in Minnesota, she said. It has expanded in recent years with more trainers and additional material on bias, racism and trauma. In the past handful of years the county also started quarterly and monthly training sessions for existing staff, where they discuss topics such as Department of Human Services policy changes, Lamb-Onayiga said.

Across the nation, child protection workers are often handed a full caseload in their second week on the job, said Traci LaLiberte, who leads the Center for Advanced Studies in Child Welfare at the University of Minnesota. But she said it generally takes more than two years to get a full understanding of child welfare work.

"They're expected to be experts in child development, experts in substance abuse, experts in disability, experts in child maltreatment and forensics, experts in children's mental health. Like, come on. It's just not possible," she said. "The induction unit is attempting to be able to recognize that and then meet the needs by preparing people for the knowledge they need to have and the connections that they need."

Going upstream

Reports of neglect often stem from a caregiver depriving a child of the basics, such as food, clothing or shelter.

Tre'Onna Williams has spent nights riding the light rail or sleeping outside, with nowhere to go. She refused to be in that situation with her new baby. But as she sat in the hospital bed holding Za'Lani this August, she didn't know where to turn.

She put out a flurry of calls that led her to Hennepin County's Parent Support Outreach Program (PSOP). A social worker with the program found them a hotel room and delivered food. During the next two months, the county put them up in hotels and helped the family find a home.

PSOP is a voluntary statewide program that serves families in need. County workers connect people with resources, from job training to mental health or addiction services to the basics, such as food and clothing. It aligns with a national movement to prevent neglect or abuse by devoting more resources upstream.

When Williams, 22, walked into her two-bedroom apartment in an aging Brooklyn Center complex this fall, she lay down on the empty living room's new carpet and stretched her arms like she was making snow angels. It was the first place she could call her own.

Child protection had removed Williams from her family and everything she knew at age 13. For five years, she was shuffled between group homes and treatment centers in Minnesota and elsewhere. After turning 18, she was put on a plane back to Minneapolis and entered "survival mode." She ended up homeless, splitting $5 with a friend to buy their meal for the day. She began using drugs recreationally.

She said she doesn't trust the child protection system that had failed her. But PSOP is different.

"A lot of people reassure me, 'Oh, we're gonna help you.' And look, I still never have received the help," Williams said. But PSOP workers' words felt true, and within a couple of months, she said, her life had changed. "I was comfortable to let this program lead me. … I was just lost, and PSOP really helped me and showed me what I can do, how to do it."

About six years ago, the county examined reasons families were entering the child protection system, Hennepin County Commissioner Debbie Goettel said.

"A lot of it was because they were in poverty and they were trying to just survive," she said. "You can't stabilize kids, can't have a great family life, when everybody in the whole family is always in crisis mode."

Since then, the county has more than doubled its PSOP staff. They still have a waitlist of families seeking aid. The program served more than 2,500 people in 2022, and about 80% of families that got help did not have a subsequent screened-in child protection report, according to the county.

Goettel hopes to next add community resource centers where "a family can walk in with no judgment and say, 'I need help with this to keep my family together.' "

For many families, the "this" is treatment resources, she said, such as the in-home family recovery pilot program the county launched last year. It helps people struggling to get to outpatient treatment. A team provides a family with substance use and mental health treatment, connects them with services and does several drug screens a week.

Jerabek's family was one of the more than 45 the program has served so far.

"That's small. I mean, it's great. It's wonderful. And it's had a huge impact for those families. But I think that's a gap," said Fintan Moore, the county's Indian Child Welfare Act program manager, who said he sees daily use of fentanyl in his Minneapolis neighborhood. "Their feeling is that there's a semi truck full of this stuff coming into town every night."

More eyes on reports, system

An intake worker and their supervisor used to spend a couple minutes deciding whether to screen a potential maltreatment report into the child protection system, said Kelly Olson, a supervisor in the county's 24-hour child protection response unit.

Now, she said, more people are involved in a deliberative process.

The county automatically screens in or out a quarter of the reports it receives. Of the remaining majority, about 95% get a multidisciplinary review.

An intake worker, supervisor and representative from the county attorney's office examine more than half of the reports that aren't automatically screened. Another roughly 40% go to a more expansive intake review team, which includes a PSOP worker and usually a community partner, like a public health nurse.

People rotate shifts on that team, which meets every weekday and works through as many cases as possible. They use a detailed framework to decide whether to screen in a report and recommend an assessment or more intensive investigation. An average review takes about 15 minutes, with some taking longer, staff said.

"We're really taking that deeper dive — and not that we weren't critically thinking about things before," Olson said. "The framework just really allows us to slow down … and kind of explore what might be missing."

Repeat maltreatment plummets

After a few years of repeat abuse rates above 13%, that figure has dropped significantly in Hennepin County and is now lower than the rest of Minnesota.

The state Department of Human Services reviews a small portion of Hennepin County's screening decisions as part of the settlement agreement for the class-action lawsuit. The state agency agreed with 100% of the county decisions it reviewed so far this year, and it has hovered around that mark since 2019.

Child welfare experts and community members who have served on Hennepin County's Child Well-Being Advisory Committee for years said they have seen progress, from the multidisciplinary reviews to expanded community engagement to more children being placed with kin if they are removed from the parents.

They also have lingering concerns as kids remain in out-of-home care for longer and children and families of color — particularly Native Americans — continue to have worse child protection outcomes. More than 80% of kids who were removed from their homes last year were children of color, according to the county.

A soon-to-be-launched online dashboard will allow the community to monitor its child welfare system after the additional scrutiny of the settlement period ends this year, advisory committee members said.

Public data on outcomes and services, independent oversight, and sufficient funding are key to sustaining progress, said Judith Meltzer with the Center for the Study of Social Policy, who has worked with states across the nation on child welfare reform.

"In the end, leadership is so key," she said. If government officials do not prioritize spending to support families and protect children, "years of hard work just fall aside."

Former staff writer Chris Serres contributed to this story.

About the project

In Harm's Way explores how Minnesota's child protection system fails to save some of the state's most vulnerable residents. Reporters began investigating in the wake of the 2022 death of Eli Hart, who was killed by his mother after being put back in her care.

To report on this topic, Star Tribune journalists spent more than a year examining thousands of documents, starting with more than 900 death certificates, dating back to 2011, that they cross-referenced with court records of child protection cases. Altogether, the reporters reviewed more than 1,000 child protection cases and dozens of related criminal cases statewide. They supplemented that information with data from state and federal reports on the child protection system.

To learn more about the individual cases, the Minnesota child protection system and best practices, reporters contacted hundreds of people, including families, social workers, guardians and state officials.

Amanda Anderson
Video (02:40) Star Tribune reporter Jeff Meitrodt talks about the origin of "In Harm's Way" and the process of reporting on the project. "We talked to hundreds of people ... about the heartbreak that comes when the rush to reunify has deadly consequences."


Reporting Jeffrey Meitrodt, Jessie Van Berkel, MaryJo Webster & Chris Serres

Photography Aaron Lavinsky

Photo editing Nicole Gutierrez, Emily Johnson & Katie Rausch

Digital design Dave Braunger

Graphics C.J. Sinner & Yuqing Liu

Editing Katie Humphrey & Eric Wieffering

Copy editing Adelie Bergström & Catherine Preus

Digital engagement Sara Porter, Nancy Yang, Amanda Anderson & Jenni Pinkley

How to get help

People can find mental health information and resources for crisis care on NAMI Minnesota's website, If you or someone you know is struggling with suicidal thoughts, call the 988 Suicide and Crisis Lifeline by dialing 988. You can also text HOME to 741741 to connect with a Crisis Text Line counselor.

If you or someone you know is in an abusive relationship, contact the Day One Hotline by calling 866-223-1111 or texting 612-399-9995.

If you suspect child abuse, report it to the county where the child lives. Contact information is at

Contact us

The Star Tribune is continuing to report on Minnesota's child protection system. We would like to hear from families, social workers, judges, guardians ad litem and others who have been involved in child protection. Our reporters will not share your information without your permission. You can reach Jeffrey Meitrodt at 612-673-4132 or Jessie Van Berkel is at 651-925-5044 or If you'd like to submit a letter or commentary about this story or series, use this link.

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