Almost half of Minnesota’s county child protection directors say they are so short-staffed that they cannot respond to reports of child abuse in the time required by law.

Only 60 percent of counties said they have the staff needed to make monthly visits with children and families in open cases, while 40 percent said they cannot adequately supervise the social workers who manage those cases, according to a survey conducted last month for the Star Tribune.

The survey was conducted in collaboration with the Minnesota Association of County Social Services Administrators to better understand child protection caseloads and turnover rates. The association sent the survey to all child protection agencies in the state’s 87 counties; 66 responded.

The concerns come as the state re-examines its ability to protect children from abuse. After the Star Tribune reported last year on systematic failures of the child protection system, Gov. Mark Dayton commissioned a task force to recommend reforms, and legislation introduced this session seeks to put a new focus on child safety.

The task force wants social workers to respond to more abuse reports and spend more time with families. Yet even if the Legislature approves those changes, there have been no proposals to increase funding for county child protection agencies.

In the most populous Minnesota counties, child protection workers who screen initial reports of suspected abuse handle 900 cases each year. Child abuse investigators in those counties are assigned about 39 cases annually.

“Unless something is done, there will only be the illusion of safety,” said Judith Brumfield, Scott County’s Health and Human Services director and a member of Dayton’s task force.

Brumfield said Scott County’s workers can meet with families once a month, but that’s not nearly enough.

“Many families need to be seen in person once a week,” she said. “We don’t have the time to spend with families that we’d like to.”

The stress on child protection workers is most glaring in the areas of the state with the most children. Ninety percent of the counties of 90,000 residents or more say their average caseload per worker is too high.

Most counties said that being able to hire one to five workers would make caseloads more manageable. But one said that it will need 10 to 15 more if the state heeds the task force’s call for more investigations and followup with families.

Dayton is waiting for the task force to submit its final recommendations, due at the end of March, to advocate for increased child protection funding, said the governor’s spokesman, Matt Swenson.

The new head of child protection for the Department of Human Services, Jim Koppel, said his agency will likely recommend increased funding to counties, but cautioned it will take more than that to repair the system.

“If we want the outcome to be that every child that comes into the child protection system should be better off as a result of the actions that we take, then we need to make changes in lots of areas,” Koppel said.

About 66 percent of county child protection directors said workers’ caseloads are too high, while another 44 percent say turnover is too high, the survey found.

Some county officials said new workers are often inexperienced and take up cases before they are fully trained. Faced with excessive caseloads, those workers often leave, said Jodi Wentland, Olmsted County’s child and family services director.

Traci LaLiberte, executive director of the University of Minnesota’s Center for Advanced Studies in Child Welfare, said the survey showed that even when child protection agencies reported they could handle the workload, that’s not always a sign of stability. One county, for example, reported a 25 percent annual turnover rate was reasonable.

“These systems have been so stressed for so long that they’ve redefined what’s manageable,” LaLiberte said.