The Legislative Auditor says there are gaps in Minnesota's child protection system -- variations in how counties and some Indian tribes first respond to cases of alleged mistreatment of children.
The report was fueled by two concerns: That the child protection system is screening out too many cases; and there's too much variation in how child protection laws are applied across different counties.
However, the report found that overall, county and tribal agencies are doing an adequate job deciding whether to act on suspected cases of child abuse or neglect.
The auditor's office presented the findings at a hearing before the House Health and Human Services Reform Committee. Researcher Carrie Meyerhoff told the committee that counties were given ten hypothetical scenarios that could potentially trigger a response from child protection. There was no unanimous agreement on any of them, and the disagreements could be substantial.
"For example, 64 percent of the agencies screened out a referral for domestic violence when the children were home, but were not present in the room where the violence occurred," Myerhoff said.
The report recommends clarifying vague language defining what constitutes "risk of harm" in state statute. It also recommends the Department of Human Services give more guidance to child protection agencies across the state.
Counties pay most of the freight when it comes to child protection, and they're opposed to new mandates from the state.
They're already feeling a financial squeeze in trying to respond to families in crisis.
Denise Graves, who serves on the Hennepin County Citizen's Review Panel, told lawmakers about a child protection program designed to support families. Family Assessment is supposed to help families find counseling, child care, drug treatment or other help to prevent the kind of future catastrophes that land them back in the child protection system. Graves said panel found three quarters of eligible families were never even offered services.
"From my understanding, it's a funding issue, that decisions have to be made, and we can't offer services to all of those families," Graves said. Graves also echoed one of the other themes of the report, that data collection is too unreliable to draw conclusions about the reasons cases are not pursued. One of the big questions the data can't answer is whether cases involving older children get less attention than those involving younger kids.
Some child welfare advocates testified that they believe counties are focusing their energies on young children at the expense of older kids who need help.
Andrea Simmonett, of Hope Street Homeless Youth Programs in Minneapolis, testified that abused teens who come to her shelter are overlooked. She says a common scenario is a child runs away from an abusive home, stays with friends, and eventually winds up at a shelter after having been away from home long enough for bruises and other physical injuries to heal.
"The response from protection services is that they can't open a case because there are no visible signs of abuse," Simmonett said. "By responding this way, we are essentially saying that we expect the young person to stay in an abusive situation and continue to be traumatized so they can have fresh wounds on them when or if protective services is notified and takes on the case."
Simmonett says kids in this situation are extremely vulnerable to prostitution, exploitation, homelessness, dropping out of school and chemical dependency.
DHS officials say they support most of the recommendations in the Legislative Auditor's Child Protection Screening report but the meeting ended without any clear indication of whether the legislature was likely to fix the flaws it pointed out.