A neighbor calls Child Protective Services to report her concern that the children next door are being physically abused. She saw 5-year-old Jessie yesterday and noticed bruises on her arms and face. At first Jessie wouldn’t say how she got them, but eventually whispered, head down, “Daddy did it.”
What happens to children like Jessie who get visited by Child Protection due to suspected maltreatment?
Historically all such reports were investigated, often leading to mandated services and monitoring by the juvenile court.
Today, however, 60% of such cases are diverted to Family Assessment (FA), an alternative child-protection track that emphasizes building relationships with parents and minimizing court involvement.
Unfortunately, some FA practices make it nearly impossible to assess child safety. For example:
• Workers set up advance appointments with parents, giving them time to coach children on what to say, and perhaps to destroy evidence.
• Many children are interviewed in the presence of alleged abusers — a terrifying experience that makes it highly unlikely they will say what happened.
• Workers typically leave without going through a fact-finding process.
• And, if indications of abuse or neglect do emerge, they are not documented in a case narrative, so workers who investigate any subsequent reports are operating blind.
Minnesota first implemented FA in the early 2000s, joining a national trend that at its peak saw 34 states using similar practices. It was originally intended for only the 25% lowest-risk cases, but that state Department of Human Services made FA the preferred child protection option in 2006. Eventually, more than 70% of intakes were diverted to FA, more than twice the number that research indicates is safe.
Since then, child welfare experts have overwhelmingly concluded that these practices create unacceptable risks for children and that evaluations that purportedly have validated this strategy are methodologically flawed.
Today, 14 states have abandoned this model, partly out of mounting concerns for child safety.
Minnesota is not one of them.
Five years ago, the Minnesota Task Force on the Protection of Children recommended that these practices end. The task force (on which we served) was appointed by Gov. Mark Dayton following a Star Tribune series that profiled 53 children who were killed by their caregivers despite being known to child protection. Among them was 4-year-old Eric Dean, whose situation was reported to child protection 15 times without an investigation before his stepmother murdered him. Twice, Family Assessment workers offered voluntary social services, but did not investigate Eric’s numerous reported injuries.
Another contributor to these 53 deaths was that Minnesota counties were only following up on 27% of child maltreatment reports — less than half the rate of most states. In response, the Task Force compelled the Department of Human Services (DHS) to establish statewide standards for responding to these reports. As a result:
• Approximately 14,100 more Minnesota children annually are now getting an in-person evaluation by a child protection worker.
• In response to this surge, counties increased their child welfare budgets.
• This attracted $117 million in federal and state matching dollars, allowing counties to reduce their caseloads to a more manageable level.
Yet these added resources won’t make children safer as long as DHS and counties continue these high-risk practices.
Other groups have also opposed certain reforms. For example, some in the African-American community have raised alarms about bringing more black families into child protection.
These concerns are understandable, since racial disparities in child protection and foster care are extreme in African-American and Native American communities. However, some of the proposed remedies would give lower priority to neglect cases, which are frequently more damaging than abuse.
Alternative approaches could address racial disparities effectively without added risk to children. For example, Nassau County in New York cut the number of foster care placements for African-American families in half by removing information from the decisionmaking process that could identify race. Also, increased in-home services would allow more children to remain safely with their families while giving service plans time to work.
The reforms envisioned five years ago have stalled. To keep Jessie and thousands of other children safe, Minnesota needs to disengage from risky Family Assessment practices, and implement pragmatic new measures to reduce racial disparities.
Lisa Hollensteiner is an emergency department physician at Fairview Southdale Hospital. Blaire Anderson is chief of police in St. Cloud. Rich Gehrman is executive director of Safe Passage for Children. This article is also submitted on behalf of Todd Otis, former president of Ready4K, a coalition of early childhood care and education advocates; Jane Ranum, retired Hennepin County district judge and former state senator; and Patty Moses, retired Hennepin County district court referee.