County News

County ‘flips system’ for child protection caseloads

Hennepin County Child Protection Investigations Social Worker Lindsay Guthrie, who is part of the Indian Child Welfare Unit, works at her desk. Photo courtesy of Hennepin County

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Hennepin County's partnership with Casey Family Programs helped the county address gaps in child protection services by adding staff, opening a 24/7 call center and more

A Minnesota county has invested in ways to reduce child protection cases and county officials are hoping it has an added impact beyond a drop in case numbers.

Hennepin County, which includes Minneapolis and has a population of 1.2 million, evaluated their child protection system in 2015.

County Commissioner Mike Opat, who also serves as chair of the child well-being advisory committee, said the county partnered with the Casey Family Programs to create a report assessing child protection. 

Learn More

Child Well-Being Advisory Committee: Chair’s Report to the Hennepin County Board

The Casey report revealed that the county was struggling with a high number of child protection caseloads and a low quality of work in response to these cases.

With the results, Opat said child protection was becoming a crisis.

“We had a number of very tragic and heartbreaking cases where kids were dying at the hands of their caregivers either in foster care or their parents before a case was opened, so that got our attention,” he said.

Opat said following the report, the county immediately hired additional full-time case workers to reduce the number of caseloads per worker and complete intakes more efficiently.

Jennifer DeCubellis, Hennepin County’s health and human services deputy county administrator, said many of these caseloads involved families with high trauma, making it even more difficult for social workers to do quality work with a large volume of calls.

The county opened 24/7 operations to respond to calls, improved trainings for case workers and reviewed unsuccessful cases to reduce the number of child protection caseloads. 

In 2016, there were over 20,000 reports made to child protection. That number was reduced to 18,000 in 2018 and appears to be trending at the same 18,000 level for 2019, a 12 percent reduction in reports. 

“I think we’re doing better with the cases that we do get now because we have smaller caseloads and the social workers have more time and support,” Opat said.

In addition to reducing caseloads, DeCubellis said the county began a transformation that was “really about flipping the system.” This effort involved early intervention and prevention services.

DeCubellis explained that families were often in crisis before making a call, which drove a large number of cases to Child Protective Services. If the county was able to provide human services and intervene earlier, she said, these children may not find themselves in the system.

“Our analysis clearly showed that what was missing is that early intervention in order to prevent maltreatment,” she said.

It was important to provide support that families would be willing to accept so they would know that just by receiving help, they would not be reported to child protection services.

“It was giving our community some different levers to pull to say we really want you to stand up to a human service response and don’t wait until maltreatment has happened,” DeCubellis said. 

This transformation focused on a different mission of helping families thrive instead of responding to bad incidents when they happen.

Opat called this a “child well-being philosophy.”

“We would also get out in front of things as best we could by looking at enhancing child well-being where maybe the behaviors weren’t abusive or neglectful, but they were troubling,” he said.

The county created a parent support outreach program and other pilot programs, such as one in schools where teachers may see disturbing trends with students and try to offer help, he said.

“That [continuum of care] is what we’re working on building,” said DeCubellis.

The Hennepin County Board approved $23 million from property taxes to invest in reducing child protection caseloads.

“The county has had to go at it alone with really disappointing involvement financially by the state,” Opat said.

DeCubellis said the board was presented a three-to-five year plan that showed the money would be used for new staffing and a “transformation” team. The team’s job is to build a new system focused on prevention, early intervention treatment and recovery services for families.

DeCubellis said she told the board making an immediate investment “will pay off in dividends long-term,” and explained that without investing, mandatory home placements costs for the county will rise with more kids in care.

“Ultimately, we narrow the scope of those kids that actually hit the child protection system which will allow us over time to shrink the size of child protection and move our money really to what’s going to better support families,” she said.

The human services system has reduced other programs and reduced staff in other departments because of this investment, DeCubellis said.

“We do believe at the five-year mark we will be able to ‘right-size’ the system and bring those services back up, but it’s not without pressure points right now,” she said.

The county uses data to keep track of the progress made in regard to the child protection system.

“We’ve got a great dashboard that tells us the health of our system and whether our efforts are working so we’re not a year down the line with a bunch of ‘oh no’s’ because we can have our eyes across the entire spectrum of the system,” DeCubellis said.

Opat added that the county tracks data such as percentages screened in, number of kids in out-of-home placement, number of kids in shelters and recurrence rates.

“It’s going to take a long time to understand how your system is doing overall and you can’t possibly do it without having a good deal of metrics because some would seem to work in opposition until you really understand all that goes into it,” he said.

DeCubellis said she believes the county is on the right track and has milestones to show the community that the investment is “flipping the system.”  

“I think there’s a greater awareness that taking care of kids is everybody’s responsibility now,” Opat said.

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