Minnesota’s child-protection system is inconsistent and underfunded

/ 21 March 2012 / jennifer

Rich Gehrman, MinnPost, March 21, 2012 –

A resident becomes concerned when she learns that a convicted rapist has moved in next door – a household with a mother and four children. The neighbor contacts the county child-protection hot line, but authorities do not investigate, as the rapist had not been convicted of molesting children.

Later, neighbors learn that the mother, her boyfriend and the father of one of the children are using – and may be selling – methamphetamines. They make several reports to authorities. Eventually, suspecting possible child maltreatment, child protection authorities refer the family to a nonprofit agency. The family, however, does not participate in the agency’s voluntary program.

Eventually – six years after the neighbor’s first call to the hot line – the child-protection agency intervenes via court action. By this time, the children have missed at least a third of school days for most of their childhood. They show signs of trauma and developmentally lag behind their classmates. The older children are beginning to exhibit their own mental-health and drug problems.

Ironically, had the children lived in an adjoining county, a child-protection worker likely would have investigated the case after the first report, offered the family services, but initiated formal court action if the parents did not make a good-faith effort to address the concerns.

This scenario, based on current court cases, illustrates a key finding of a February report [link added] by the Minnesota Legislative Auditor: If you are a neglected or abused Minnesota child, whether you receive meaningful help depends on where you live.

Falling through the cracks

That report detailed the discrepancies and inconsistencies among Minnesota counties that are allowing children to fall through the cracks  in our child protection system. For example, the Auditor reported that, in one instance, all of the child maltreatment reports a county received were investigated. In another county, 89 percent of such reports were not followed up on. And other counties fell in between those two extremes.

Were the county decisions appropriate? We’re not really sure, because, as the Auditor noted, state guidelines for these cases are “vague.”  Moreover, while some counties keep detailed records of such reports, others keep no record of whether a report was referred to child-protection authorities.

In visits with lawmakers, representatives of Safe Passage for Children of Minnesota — a volunteer organization concerned about our child-protection and foster-care system — have heard two basic responses to the Auditor’s report:

  • The state should restore the monies cut from these programs over the past 10 years.  This is estimated at from $50 million to as much as $100 million; as with child-protection statistics, no one is certain of the exact amount.
  • The state’s human-services programs, including child welfare, are fragmented, unaccountable and need to improve performance before receiving increased funds.

Both accountability, more funding needed

There is truth in both points of view. For the state to have a child-protection system that improves outcomes for children and families, county agencies, the courts and nonprofit organizations need to be more accountable. At the same time the state only contributes about 10 percent of the cost of these programs – the second lowest level of state funding in the nation.

As a start, the Legislature can act on the Auditor’s report with clear standards for what “counts” as abuse or neglect in Minnesota, and set consistent requirements for the information collected and maintained by counties on maltreatment reports. At the same time, lawmakers must help counties meet these standards by ensuring the state will pick up its fair share of child-protection program costs.

The Auditor’s report should not just sit on a shelf, but should be the basis for action — so that Minnesota children are safe and can reach their full potential.

_Richard Gehrman is the executive director of Safe Passage for Children of Minnesota.

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