Child Welfare in Minnesota: The origins of Safe Passage
Alarming Trends In Child Protection And Foster Care
In This Section:
Startling Research Results
Safe Passage for Children of Minnesota was incorporated in 2009 to address alarming trends in child protection and foster care in this state.
Safe Passage sponsored research on the effectiveness of the state’s child welfare system. The results startled many policy makers.
The research, for example, indicated:
- Minnesota counties were only responding to 28 percent of child maltreatment reports. This compared with an average for states nationally of 62 percent. In other words, each year child protection workers were failing to visit more than 20,000 Minnesota children reported to be in at-risk situations. Instead, many Minnesota children were remaining in, or being returned to, those high-risk settings. As a result, many of them suffered; some were killed.
- Minnesota historically only contributed 15 percent of the cost of public child protection programs, with the remainder contributed at the county and federal levels. In this regard, Minnesota ranked third lowest among the 50 states. Between 2002 and 2009, Minnesota had cut the share it provided to counties for these costs by $25 million annually.
- Of those children who did receive a visit from child services, more than 70 percent were assigned to a program known in Minnesota as Family Assessment. This program took a less punitive approach to child protection than other programs. It was intended to serve approximately 20-30 percent of the lowest-risk cases. Over time, however, nearly 75 percent of all reported cases were assigned to Family Assessment. The program became virtually voluntary and was applied to many high-risk situations, including more than 400 cases of sexual abuse annually.
Family Assessment used questionable social work practices; for example:
- Children were routinely interviewed in presence of their alleged perpetrators.
- Parents and adults in the household were alerted in advance of a visit from a child protection worker.
- Workers were not trained in — and were discouraged from –a fact-finding protocol.
- Workers were discouraged from making collateral contacts with other professionals.
- Cases ended without any findings of whether maltreatment occurred or what the worker discovered.
- Alleged victims and perpetrators weren’t identified; as a result, repeat reports were not detected.
What Was Discovered
What Did The University Of Minnesota's Institute Of Child Development And Safe Passage For Children Of Minnesota Discover In Their Research?
To address other information gaps, Safe Passage worked with the University of Minnesota Institute of Child Development to study nearly 100 cases of child protection in Hennepin County Court. These cases were known as Child in Need of Protection and Services, or “CHIPS” petitions. The results of the study, published in three respected academic journals, included:
- Many children were reported 10-15 times or more without a response from social services.
- On the average, following a report it took 15 months a case to get to court and 37 months to close the case.
- Following initial reports, 36 percent of children experienced additional maltreatment while under protective supervision.
- 89 percent of families assigned to Family Assessment never received any services.
Data from other counties suggested that these statistics were not unique to Hennepin County.
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Governor’s Task Force on the Protection of Children
Beginning in May 2014, the failings of child protection became known to the broader public through a series of articles in the Star Tribune. Citizens responded, in particular, to the story of Eric Dean, a four-year-old from rural Minnesota who was killed by his stepmother despite 15 reports to child protection.
Successive articles in the series related the stories of all 56 children in Minnesota killed by their parents and caregivers since 2005.
A heart-wrenching photo of Eric with a broken arm and a brave smile accompanied the Labor Day weekend story. A short time later, Governor Mark Dayton said he was haunted by the picture, and appointed a Task Force on the Protection of Children. The Safe Passage Executive Director was appointed to the Task Force and played an influential role in proceedings. The Task Force completed its work in March 2015 with 93 recommendations that included nearly all of the reforms that Safe Passage had enunciated in its original five-year plan.
Some recommendations required changes in state law. The most important changed the primary purpose of the child protection system to the protection of children, rather than the law’s previous emphasis on Family Assessment – and keeping the family together — as the preferred option in child protection cases. In addition, the law now stated that parents’ cooperation with counties would no longer be voluntary, even in Family Assessment cases. Also, the Legislature added $52 million in funding biannually to child protection to fund 400 additional child protection workers statewide and provide $2.5 million in grants to address racial disparities.
Practice and State Statute Changes
Many Child Protection Task Force Recommendations Called For Practice Changes That Did Not Require Legislation, And Included:
- Children who are the subject of abuse reports should be interviewed prior to and separately from adults in their households.
- Workers should be trained in a common fact-finding protocol to be used in all cases.
- After each investigation, the investigator must file a report detailing the findings, including whether there was a victim and perpetrator.
- The state should conduct an independent outside review of child protection practices.
Additional Important Changes in Minnesota state Statute Were:
- All counties must follow the same guidelines for child maltreatment cases and may not change them without prior approval from the state Department of Human Services.
- The time required to retain information on screened-out reports was extended from one to five years, to improve counties’ ability to identify chronic maltreatment.
- The state must develop a quality assurance program to ensure consistent screening.
- Counties must share maltreatment reports consistently with local law enforcement.
- If families do not cooperate with county social services, their cases cannot be closed without prior consultation with the county attorney.
- The types of maltreatment reports that require an investigative response were expanded to include all allegations of sexual abuse and other specified high-risk cases.
- Workers are encouraged, rather than discouraged, from making collateral contacts.
- Supervisory training is now mandatory for child protection supervisors.
- Mandated reporters must be informed of the disposition of their reports.
Task Force Follow-Up
Follow-up to the Governor’s Task Force
To ensure that the Governor’s Task Force recommendations are implemented, the Legislature established its own Task Force on Child Protection. Legislation was passed in the 2016 legislative session to make this task force an ongoing committee through 2020.
This proved to be crucial, because in November 2015 a work group including representatives of DHS and the Minnesota Association of County Social Services Administrators (MACSSA) produced an implementation plan that, while supporting many non-controversial Governor’s Task Force recommendations, categorized most of the key reforms as posing ‘potential adverse consequences to children’ or ‘minimal benefit’. After subsequent conversations — primarily with members of the Legislative Task Force and Safe Passage — DHS has asked the work group that developed the plan to revisit it, and MACSSA is reconsidering its opposition to these reforms.
At The Legislature
State of Minnesota legislative agenda
No new legislation was introduced at the urging of Safe Passage during 2016. DHS and the counties are still absorbing and responding to the numerous changes passed in 2015. Instead, we focused our legislative efforts on supporting programs that can prevent child abuse. Our two main partners in this regard are the MinneMinds Coalition, which promotes quality early childhood opportunities through scholarships, and the Minnesota Targeted Home Visiting Coalition, which delivers parenting skills training to high-risk parents. Both have been effective in reducing the incidence of child maltreatment. We will continue to support these and similar programs in the future because our goal is to not only address child abuse more effectively when it happens, but to reduce the number of children who experience maltreatment in the first place.
During the 2017-2018 legislative session we hope to help with the sponsorship of legislation that will accelerate the process of implementing the outcomes-based child welfare system described above. This, along with continuing to monitor the reforms passed in 2015, will be the major task of Safe Passage over the next 3-5 years.
In addition, we are beginning to have volunteers meet with their county-level elected officials, since we have the resources to expand in this area, and counties are where the reforms will actually be implemented. We are also pursuing a number of new partnerships that we believe will help us achieve our political goals and become new sources of volunteers. This includes associations representing adoption and foster care providers, and law enforcement.