Spurred by recent breakdowns in Minnesota's child protection system, legislators are pushing a project to train hundreds of workers each year on new methods for detecting and preventing child abuse.

The ambitious proposal would create the state's first standardized curriculum and certification process for child protection workers and would correct what many child welfare advocates see as a long-standing gap in Minnesota's decentralized system for protecting vulnerable children from maltreatment.

Proponents hope the enhanced training will help counties and Indian tribes increasingly overwhelmed by a flood of new child abuse and neglect cases in families ravaged by the opioid crisis. They also see it as a powerful tool for strengthening the front-line response to child maltreatment and preventing the sort of appalling violence and neglect that law enforcement officials recently discovered at a family's house in south Minneapolis, which prosecutors have described as a "house of horrors."

For a period of years, two girls with developmental disabilities were allegedly raped, beaten with bats and chained for days at a time without food by their father. Court records indicate that as far back as 2013, Hennepin County child protection workers knew of possible abuse of the twin girls, now 21, but did not remove the children from the home. The county's handling of the case is now under review and has triggered calls for enhanced training for child welfare workers — a key recommendation of a 2015 task force appointed by Gov. Mark Dayton.

"Tragedies like the 'house of horrors' are a reminder of why we need to invest in a project like this," said Dr. Mark Hudson, a child abuse specialist and medical director of the Midwest Children's Resource Center in Minneapolis. "It's a recognized need, and we definitely have room for improvement."

In recent weeks, an emerging coalition of child welfare advocates and county social workers has rallied around a proposal to create a statewide child welfare training academy with regional hubs.

Modeled after similar projects in other states, the academy would train up to 2,000 front-line child protection workers each year, as well as 250 supervisors, on how to detect when a child is in danger and how to move that child to a safe and permanent home as quickly as possible. Lessons would include how to communicate with children with disabilities, who are abused at a far greater rate than the general population.

"A lot of the problems in our child protection system stem from a severe lack of preparedness," said Rep. Ron Kresha, R-Little Falls, chief author of the child welfare legislation. "We need to train these workers better, and give them the resources they need, so they're not running into a buzz saw on Day One."

Compared with other states, Minnesota's spending on training for child protection workers remains "woefully inadequate," said Traci LaLiberte, executive director of the University of Minnesota's Center for Advanced Studies in Child Welfare. In a recent analysis, LaLiberte found that Minnesota spends $71 on training for every child receiving a child protection response. That's compared with $354 in Pennsylvania, $267 in Washington and $111 in Colorado.

"As a state, we are doing less than the bare minimum," LaLiberte said. "Without adequately training our workforce, we are putting kids and families at risk."

The training of child protection workers varies dramatically. In many counties, the regimen is a mix of on-the-job shadowing, webinars and classroom workshops. But amid climbing caseloads, training is often put on the back burner; many workers are expected to investigate serious reports of maltreatment almost immediately after being hired, say child protection workers.

In Olmsted County in southern Minnesota, for instance, child protection supervisors no longer have as much time to mentor new workers before they start investigating cases. "We used to give people the chance to learn the job in a more slow, methodical way," said Alan O'Malley-Laursen, a county program manager. "But some of that has slipped as our caseloads keep getting higher."

Meanwhile, in northern St. Louis County, which has been particularly hard-hit by the opioid epidemic, child protection workers have yet to receive formalized training on the many new types of synthetic drugs and how they affect children of addicted parents, said Dennis Frazier, a child protection worker in the county. "These newer drugs are damaging families much faster than anything we've ever seen, but we don't know what we need to know to respond effectively," he said.

Across the state, surging caseloads are often cited for the dearth of training. The number of child abuse and neglect reports "screened in," or accepted for review, by child protection agencies in Minnesota has increased from 20,167 reports in 2014 to 30,936 in 2016. The fast-moving opioid crisis is a major factor: Parental drug abuse now eclipses neglect as the number one reason that Minnesota children are being taken from their birth parents and placed in state custody, according to a recent state report.

In some counties, the average caseload has reached 30 per child-protection worker — three times the state standard. That has fueled higher staff turnover among workers who feel emotionally drained, county officials say. "People are burning out faster than we can hire them," said Frazier, who is also president of AFSCME Local 66 in Duluth.

As it stands, the county-run child protection system is so overwhelmed that Minnesota is no longer meeting its own statutory requirements for training new workers. Under state law, these workers are required to undergo competency-based training within six months. Statewide, only about 40 percent of the workers who are scheduled to undergo this training through September will meet this basic requirement, according to state data.

"This is serious," said Greg Gardner, a former child protection investigation supervisor for Hennepin County. "You need to have quality people trained to do quality work — because you're dealing with children's lives here."

Under the legislation, the proposed child welfare academy would train new employees and supervisors at five regional hubs at a cost of about $7.5 million a year.

Advocates say the cost of operating the academy would be more than offset by longer-term savings generated by preventing incidents of abuse and neglect. The average lifetime cost for each child survivor of maltreatment is $210,000, including lost productivity and extra health and criminal justice costs, according to a 2010 study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

"If a child experiences trauma, each wound creates more medical problems, more emotional problems and more court involvement that can last a lifetime," said Libby Bergman, executive director of the Family Enhancement Center in Minneapolis, which provides therapy for families affected by child abuse.