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No Easy Fix for Child Protection System

Friday, October 13, 2017  
Posted by: Laura Fenstermaker
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From Minnesota Lawyer

If an Oct. 3 legislative hearing made anything clear, it is that child-protection workers and parents alike are intensely frustrated with state reforms meant to prevent failures like the 2013 death of Eric Dean.

That Pope County toddler was killed by his mother despite 15 warnings to county officials from day care providers and others who reported that he was being egregiously abused. His case sparked Gov. Mark Dayton to form a child-protection task force that generated 93 legislative recommendations for fixing the system.

Many of those have yet to be implemented, and the Legislative Task Force on Child Protection is sorting out how to implement more of them. But those that are in place, child-protection workers told lawmakers, have led to a huge spike in child maltreatment reports, investigations and foster care placements.

That has created an overburdened system and a situation so dire, child-protection workers said, that many career professionals are abandoning the field.

Meanwhile minority and low-income parents say the changes have placed them under parental microscopes and that children in those communities are unjustly being removed from their families and homes.

Jennifer Munt is public affairs director for AFSCME Council 5, the union that represents child-protection workers in Minnesota’s largest counties. She thinks it is fair to say that cases like Eric Dean’s are being exchanged for cases like Kiyanu Baker’s.

Baker is a young African-American and former student at Rochester Technical and Community College. He offered emotional written testimony at the hearing, read aloud by his mother, Jenifer Quinn.

Several of Baker’s nephews—his sister’s toddler children—were taken away by county child-protection workers because one of them got to some prescription medicine on a high shelf, Quinn said in an interview Tuesday. She tried to get custody of the kids herself, but child-protection workers refused her request. The kids were subsequently moved six times, she said.

After being placed in foster care, one of the toddlers lashed out during a visit with her family, Quinn said. In his note, Baker said that incident was taken as evidence that Quinn’s family should be denied any further home visits.

“My nephew lashes out when he is upset, so they took that to be because of us,” Baker’s note said. “The truth is he wanted so badly to come home, it upset him every time.”

Quinn read her son’s message falteringly, sometime through sobs. It described how she jumped through the child-protection system’s many hoops, yet nothing changed.

The little boys are too young to understand that their foster care placement “isn’t our doing,” Baker wrote. Crying as she got to the end of his note, Quinn said her family has not heard from the boys in four months and she no longer knows where they are.

“How does this happen?” she said.

Spike in investigations

While the governor’s task force was formed to prevent incidents like Eric Dean’s death, Munt said, the reforms instituted so far have created a system that errs on the side of over-caution and unintended consequences.

Citing Department of Human Services data, Munt said the 2015 reforms have led to a 77 percent spike in maltreatment reports. That has generated a 50 percent increase in formal maltreatment investigations and a corollary 33 percent increase in out-of-home placements — at a time when the system does not have enough foster families to go around, she said.

The system is so overtaxed, said Ramsey County child-protection screener Cynthia Hassan, that kids sometimes must sleep on cots in child-protection workers’ offices. Workers consequently must stay with them to provide supervision, she said.

Still, others at the meeting argued that some such consequences were anything but unintended.

“The caseload increases are absolutely the intended consequence of a statute change that required counties to respond uniformly to reports of child maltreatment,” said Rich Gehrman, a member of the governor’s task force. The reforms, he said, mean that 14,000 more children per year receive child-protection services than was the case before they were in place.

Gehrman, director of the citizen’s advocacy group Safe Passage for Children, acknowledged that caseload ratios are badly out of whack and need to be reduced.

The state tried to keep the ratios in balance when the Legislature appropriated $52 million to hire new workers. But investing in new hires hasn’t offset the loss of career professionals who are abandoning their jobs because they can no longer handle the stress, according to several testifiers.

“Our workers are all leaving,” said John Sundell, a St. Louis County child-protection worker. “They don’t want to be there — they can’t be there — because of the work.”

Hassan gave an example. Ramsey County has made child-protection screening a 24-hour-a-day, rather than a 40-hour-a-week operation. But staffing has not increased commensurate to the additional burden, she said.

“We have six screeners, plus a couple of part-time workers, that are covering 24/7,” she said. “We are really struggling with making that happen and it has been incredibly stressful.”

Meanwhile, many child-protection workers manage 30 to 35 cases, Hassan said. The governor’s task force recommended just 10.

Ethan Vogel, the AFSCME Council 5 legislative liaison, said that every child-protection worker with whom he has spoken worries the system is nearing a breaking point.

“They live with a constant fear that someday, one of their children will slip through the cracks — that they will miss something and the kid will be seriously injured or, in the worst case, will die,” Vogel said.

The AFSCME representatives offered several recommendations. Legislators should seek more direct input from child-protection workers, they said. They should direct human services to establish and enforce safe caseload standards. And they should invest more money in new hires — including case aides and clerical support—and provide case workers more thorough and useful training.

Chaotic conclusion

The meeting lasted beyond the scheduled two hours. Shortly before the 2:45 mark, the task force’s chair, Sen. Michelle Fischbach, R-Paynesville, informed the audience that some people would not have time to testify. They would be invited back to the next hearing in mid-January, she said. The task force’s co-chair, Rep. Ron Kresha, R-Little Falls, had a commitment in his district and needed to leave, she explained.

That did not sit well with Nekima Levy-Pounds, a Minneapolis mayoral candidate and civil rights attorney who was at the meeting. Shouting from her seat in the audience, she demanded that the panel listen to all parents waiting to testify.

“You’re telling these people to come back in January?” Levy-Pounds said. “You’re acting like you don’t care what they have been through and what their children have been though. This is so disrespectful!”

“So is yelling at me from the audience,” Fischbach replied.

Kelis Houston, chair of the NAACP Child Protection Committee, managed to make a recommendation through what devolved into chaotic crosstalk. She asked for a legislative audit of child protective services to investigate what she termed “discriminatory practices.”

Houston said the legislative reforms have pushed more poor families and families of color into the child-protection system. “I have been coming here for the past three to four years asking that you all actively address disproportionality and disparities,” she said. “You failed to do so.”

She then joined in Levy-Pounds’ demand to let everyone testify. “We want these families to be heard,” Houston said. “Hopefully it speaks to your humanity today.”

However, saying the meeting had run too long, Fischbach abruptly ended it.

Interviewed afterward, Fischbach said she tried to explain why the meeting had to end but could not get people to listen. “I couldn’t get a word in,” she said. “So we had to adjourn. We were 45 minutes overtime.”

She said those who were unable to testify at the hearing will be invited back to the next hearing in January and they will be put at the top of the list of testifiers. “I want to listen to everybody,” she said.

“We do care,” the senator added. “It’s almost sad that I have to say that. We care. And so we will be reaching out.”


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