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Drop in Minnesota child abuse cases puzzles experts

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Child abuse appears to be dropping in Minnesota - a surprising trend at a time when the economy has strained many families. 

Proven cases of abuse and neglect have dropped to their lowest levels since 1982, when Minnesota's population was smaller by a million people. Nationally, the numbers are also dropping.

Child welfare experts think demographics, a drop in crime and better prevention may all be playing a part.

METRO COUNTIES SEE REDUCED NUMBER OF ABUSE CASES

Each month, the people who supervise child abuse investigations in each of the seven metro counties get together to compare notes. For reasons they don't fully understand, their caseloads seem to move in sync. 

Child protection reports in Hennepin County
This infographic shows the decline in child protection reports in Hennepin County from 2005 to 2008.
MPR Graphic/Steve Mullis

Ricky Morrissey, supervisor of the child protection investigation unit in Dakota County, remembers they all saw a spike in methamphetamine cases a few years back. About a year and a half ago, Morrissey and he and his counterparts noticed something they didn't expect: despite the tough economy, they weren't getting more calls about kids being neglected or abused.

"That was the logical thought, that probably things would go up," he said. "But it's been the reverse." 

Morrissey said in Dakota County, the numbers have stayed flat despite the county's growing population. 

The numbers in the state's largest county are even more surprising. Margaret Thunder supervises child protection intake and the investigations in Hennepin county. She calls the number of intake calls to child protection "eerily consistent" over the years -- until two years ago.

"And then all of a sudden took this huge dip in '08, which woke everyone up to start looking at, 'wow, what happened here?" said Thunder.

In 2008, calls to Hennepin County child protection dropped by 24 percent. The numbers stayed at that lower level in 2009 and 2010.

Thunder explains the child protection system works like a funnel. At the top are all the calls that come into county child protection. The calls come from doctors, teachers, and daycare providers who are required by law to report cases of suspected neglect or abuse, and also from neighbors, friends, and relatives. 

Child protection workers then do triage and figure out which incidents need investigation or follow-up. According to the state, 70 percent of the cases involve neglect, 20 percent involve physical abuse and 16 percent sexual abuse. Medical abuse and emotional abuse make up another 1 percent each. (The percentages add up to more than 100 because some kids are victims of more than one of these.)

When Hennepin County's call volume dropped, so did its investigations and ultimately, its prosecutions. County attorneys began asking where all the cases were.

WHY THE DROP IN CHILD ABUSE?

Hennepin County child protection experts tried to make sense of what was going on. They were cautious. What if the abuse and neglect were still out there, but somehow not being reported? What if people didn't think it was worth calling child protection?

Thunder's boss, Don Sabre, Children's Services Area Manager for Hennepin County, agreed it seemed counter-intuitive that child maltreatment would be dropping, just as the economy was tanking in 2008.

"Crime is about as low as it's been in the last 50 or 60 years ... and if there's less and less violence that occurs in a society, you'd expect there to be less and less violence directed at children."

"We'd think families would be in much more stress, so we'd be expecting more calls," Sabre said. "Or are folks so concerned individually with their own welfare that they're not looking out for their neighbors? Is the population too mobile and not making connections in community?"

The county enlisted the help of Ross MacMillan, a demographer and criminologist at the University of Minnesota. MacMillan points out that right now, there are fewer kids as the population ages. Fewer kids could mean fewer potential victims. 

There may be another phenomenon at work. People are waiting longer to have children, which could mean fewer perpetrators.

"The peak age for most crimes is the late teenage years. And then they start to taper off pretty steadily," MacMillan said. "The translation of that into instances of child abuse is if you start to have fewer and fewer young mothers, then you're probably going to have fewer and fewer child abuse cases as well."

MacMillan is also looking at how the child abuse numbers fit within the larger pattern of the drop in violent crime. 

"Crime is about as low as it's been in the last 50 or 60 years," MacMillan said, "and if there's less and less violence that occurs in a society, you'd expect there to be less and less violence directed at children."

MacMillan wonders why, if crime has been dropping markedly since the early 90s, is it only now that we're noticing child abuse is going down? 

A CULTURE CHANGE

One possible explanation for the drop in child abuse is a culture change: America is less tolerant of harming children.

"I think we've kind of turned a corner, maybe," said Connie Skillingstad, executive director of Prevent Child Abuse Minnesota, a statewide non-profit. 

Thirty years ago when Prevent Child Abuse America was getting started, Skillingstad said, its public service messages were designed to convince the public that hurting children was wrong.

"The ads about child abuse would show a parent grabbing a child and maybe heading toward the stove, or a child being locked in a closet -- the horror stories," Skillingstad said. Those ads ran up until a few years ago, "And what we began to learn is that that sort of message wasn't changing anything. That we didn't need to convince people any more." 

Make no mistake, there are still plenty of horrific stories in the news about adults beating and killing kids, but Skillingstad said on the whole, there's been a dramatic shift in public attitudes. 

It began with mandated reporting laws in the 1960s and 70s. Before then, what happened in the home was considered private. By the 1980s and 90s, prosecutions were picking up steam, cracking down on "bad parents" and removing their children. 

But Skillingstad said taking kids away from their families and putting them in foster care or other out-of-home placements turned out to be invasive, expensive, and most concerning, didn't achieve very good results. 

"Over time then, I think what's happened is we've understood more about the fact that kids need their families," Skillingstad said. "And that the best thing we can do is help those parents be able to parent more effectively." 

A SHIFT AWAY FROM PROSECUTING PARENTS

Minnesota has overhauled its approach to child protection over the past decade. 

Erin Sullivan Sutton, assistant commissioner for children and family services for Minnesota's Department of Human Services, said the old system was a one-size-fits-all approach that didn't help poor families who couldn't meet their children's basic needs. 

Now, nearly 70 percent of child abuse and neglect cases, the less severe cases, get a "family assessment" rather than a traditional investigation. The focus of a family assessment isn't on determining whether abuse occurred, it's offering services such as counseling, parent education, or drug and alcohol treatment. 

"The interaction with families is much more positive, and strength-based, and we help families access the resources that they need to safely care for their children, at the same time recognizing that in some instances, a more aggressive intervention is needed," Sullivan Sutton said.

The state doesn't have data yet to show the shift to Family Assessment is what's driving down the number of child abuse and neglect cases, but data from the pilot phase a few years ago showed there was a dividend: fewer families came back, and if they did, they were at lower risk. 

But no one is sending out press releases about the drop in child abuse just yet. 

The reasons people hurt or neglect their kids are complicated. Experts say it's not just linked to the economy. And while the apparent downward trend is welcome, there's still work to do. 

Nearly 5,000 kids are abused or neglected in Minnesota every year. 

Children of color are still vastly over-represented in those numbers. Native American children are six times more likely than white children to wind up in the child protection system, and black children are four times more likely.