A dramatic rise in reported child abuse in Hennepin County is overwhelming child protection workers, filling up foster homes and shelter beds and in extreme cases forcing children to stay with abusive parents, according to county officials and records.

With no other options, some children who need placement into immediate custody for their safety are being left in their homes, county officials say. Or children are getting dropped off at emergency rooms and living there for weeks until a safe home is found, a Hennepin County Medical Center official said.

Children who have been able to get into a shelter at times are ending up stranded there long past the 90 days allowed under state law. Because the placement is supposed to be temporary, they often get only their basic needs met.

Hennepin County is on track to get 20,000 abuse reports this year, an increase of 2,500 over 2015. That’s the highest in a decade, according to data provided in April to the county’s Child Protection Oversight Committee.

The increase follows sweeping reforms in the past two years that directed counties to more aggressively intervene to safeguard children from abuse and neglect. Those reforms were motivated by widespread public outrage over tragic failures of child protection.

Now child protection workers say they’re confronted with so many cases that they cannot give each one the needed attention, putting children at risk. Workers are quitting or voluntarily taking lower-level jobs.

“I’ve had kids get worse,” said Calvin McIntyre, who works as a child advocate in Hennepin County juvenile court, which is on pace to see its highest caseload in more than six years. “A lot of times you know the reason for those behaviors are because there’s no consistency in their life.”

The workload has created turnover in the department and boosted caseloads for remaining employees over national thresholds, said Jennifer DeCubellis, the county’s deputy administrator for health and human services.

“We absolutely have concerns about our staff viability,” she said.

DeCubellis said in the short term, the county is working on hiring more workers and finding more beds, and pursuing a long-term strategy of keeping families out of the system by providing more preventive services.

Backlog grows

Janine Moore, the area director of the county’s children and family services department, said earlier this month that child protection has a backlog of nearly 300 unreviewed reports, up from 111 in February. Moore said staff examine all cases to determine which ones need immediate response.

Earlier this year, Moore told the committee there were 15 children on a shelter waiting list, meaning they needed to be taken into protective custody but child protection workers had nowhere to put them. At one point, the committee learned, there were 30 such cases, with a wait of up to two weeks before a safe home opened up for a child.

“Quite frankly,” Moore told the committee, “we’ve been struggling with this for over a year now.”

Currently, 15 to 20 children remain on the shelter waiting list, said Hennepin County Commissioner Mike Opat, co-chair of the oversight committee.

Mother runs

In one case, a judge ordered the county to take immediate custody of four children after their mother repeatedly skipped drug tests and therapy sessions, according to juvenile court records. But the case worker had no open beds for the children and allowed the mother to keep them.

When a bed did open up five days later, the mother fled with the children and went missing. She was arrested Jan. 8 and released after her children were found and put into shelter care.

That’s supposed to be a short stay before moving into foster care or returning home. One of the children, who was 10, stayed in a shelter for nearly 90 days and regressed.

“His challenges have increased dramatically,” according to a social worker’s report. “He has struggled to be calm and to keep himself and others feeling safe around him.”

Under state law, children can stay in a shelter program for a maximum of 90 days, unless the county is able to get a waiver. Moore told the oversight committee in February there were 20 children who spent more than 90 days in shelter care.

Left at hospitals

About two dozen children in the past year who had nowhere else to go were admitted to the pediatric ward of Hennepin County Medical Center, said the ward’s director, Dr. Frances Prekker. Some, said Prekker, had to be confined to the ward because they might run away. Some of the children stayed in the ward for a month, Prekker said.

“It’s quite stressful [for the children]. The hospital is a really boring place to live,” Prekker said. “They feel quite isolated.”

Brooklyn Park Police Chief Craig Enevoldsen said his officers have brought young children they suspected were abused to North Memorial Medical Center in Robbinsdale.

“We’d say, I need you to examine this child for any kind of injuries that aren’t visible to us, and then tell the ER I have nowhere to take this child,” said Enevoldsen.

Enevoldsen said the situation has improved recently as the county has moved to a 24-hour response, including having child protection workers and supervisors on-call over weekends who can work with police. Moore said the backlog of abuse and neglect cases also should go down with the addition of nine new screeners.

But hiring has been a challenge, with 36 positions still unfilled. It has been nearly a year since the Hennepin County Board approved spending $3.6 million to hire nearly 100 child protection workers. County workers say their caseloads have gotten worse since then. In the past year, 25 child protection workers have quit and 26 have voluntarily demoted themselves, county records show.

Investigators are working about 18 cases at a time, according to their union, AFSCME. Gov. Mark Dayton’s Child Protection Task Force recommended that a worker carry “no more than 10” cases.

“Child protection workers are set up to fail with caseloads of more than 10 families,” said AFSCME spokeswoman Jennifer Munt. “We live with constant fear that a child will slip through our safety net.”

Moore said investigators are getting about three to four new cases a week. “That is more than a reasonable caseload distribution,” she said.

In April, Moore told the oversight committee that to hire more staff her department will offer bonuses, increase starting salaries and lower the required experience from three years to one year.

DeCubellis said she doesn’t anticipate a decrease in the number of abuse reports.

“I don’t see the solution as throwing more resources at it,” she said. “It is, how do we provide better support in our communities and our families so those reports don’t happen in child protection to begin with.”