The safety of abused children in Hennepin County is compromised because of an underfunded child protection system whose workers are overloaded and undersupported and lack "a sense of urgency," according to a report released last week by a national child welfare foundation.

In Hennepin County, 10 percent of maltreated children endured more abuse within a year, compared to 5 percent of maltreated children statewide, the Casey Family Programs found.

County Board Chairwoman Jan Callison said of the report, "It's disturbing, and we want to do better."

The Casey review comes as five children in Hennepin County have died from maltreatment since 2014, despite their caregivers being known to child protection, according to a review by the Star Tribune. The most recent victim, 2-year-old Sophia O'Neill, died last week, and her father has accused Hennepin County of failing to investigate earlier abuse.

Child protection has made it more difficult for abuse reports to lead to open cases using screening protocols that seemed "intentionally restrictive," according to Casey.

County rules barred screeners from asking questions that would allow them to gather key information.

When cases were opened, they were too readily directed to a program called "family assessment" where an abuser is not identified and held accountable. Family assessment appears to have been used as a "workload management strategy" to move cases quickly to closure, the report said.

Children who were identified as abuse victims were likely to be abused again at rates higher than national standards, Casey found.

As part of its study, Casey conducted focus groups with 140 unidentified social workers, police officers, judges and attorneys and others involved in child protection, many of whom blasted the system.

"Decisions are not based on common sense," said one member of the focus group.

"You can't do a good job anymore," said another. "It feels unsafe. Kids are going to get hurt."

Some caseworkers said they feared retribution for participating in the Casey study, the report said.

New state laws in place

While the Casey report looked solely at Hennepin County, many of the issues the assessment raises are nearly identical to statewide problems found by a task force appointed by Gov. Mark Dayton, who formed the task force following the Star Tribune's reporting on systemic failures in child protection, including the death of 4-year-old Eric Dean, whose suspected maltreatment had been reported 15 times to Pope County before he was killed in February 2013.

Dayton's task force urged counties and the state to hire more social workers to open more cases, gather more information and provide better services.

Last month, Dayton signed a litany of changes to child protection laws and infused an additional $52 million into the system. More changes and money are expected next year.

In its report on Hennepin County, Casey said some of the blame is due to county and state funding cuts resulting in workers who can't keep up with their caseloads.

"It's a powerful statement to policymakers to provide more resources to do the work," said Rex Holzemer, assistant Hennepin County administrator for human services.

Along with releasing the 31-page report Friday, county administrators say they want to add 100 child protection workers by the end of the year. The additional staffers would cost a total of $8.5 million a year, beginning in 2016. $4.9 million of that will come from the state, $3.6 million from the county.

Holzemer cautioned that expanding the county child protection staff will take time. "This is not something that's going to be done in six months or even one year," he said.

The County Board will be briefed on the Casey study June 25.

Casey Family Programs, which conducted the assessment pro bono, will conduct free upcoming retreats for top county child services managers. Holzemer said the county expressed appreciation for the report's extensive critique. "We opened ourselves to that," he said. "We wanted it all."

Holzemer said the three main areas of concern in the report — leadership, work environment and lack of resources — came as no surprise to the county. The Casey Report sprang from a larger evaluation the county began in early 2014.

The report's brightest spot is praise directed toward child protection workers, who are credited for having strong educational backgrounds, quality skills, energy and commitment to their work.

"That's the basis on which we build a better system," Callison said. • 612-673-4626 • 612-673-1747