Hennepin County officials say their efforts to overhaul a beleaguered child protection system are starting to show some positive results, but still face significant challenges.
Members of a child well-being advisory committee reported Thursday on the first year of efforts to shift the system from responding only after a report of abuse to focusing on the well-being of the child.
The safety of children "is paramount. It is critical," said Jennifer DeCubellis, deputy Hennepin County administrator.
"However if we stop with just making sure kids in Hennepin County are safe, we've missed the opportunity to make sure children are thriving," DeCubellis said. "And if children are thriving, the likelihood of recurrences back into child protection, the likelihood of families being broken up, all dramatically change."
The county launched the reforms after a 2015 study found systemic problems with its child protection system, including overloaded case workers.
Like other Minnesota counties, Hennepin has seen a sharp increase in reports of child abuse and neglect in recent years — from under 11,000 in 2009 to more than 20,000 last year.
The county boosted spending on child protection from about $74 million in 2015 to more than $100 million last year, increasing the number of child protection staff from 385 to 647.
The county also created a 24/7 response team to react quickly to new abuse reports, and developed a school pilot program to connect with at-risk families, DeCubellis said.
As part of "flipping the system" to a focus on well-being, the county is trying to intervene earlier with families under stress where children might be at risk, DeCubellis said. That could include offering help with finding housing, a job, transportation or parenting skills, she said.
There are positive signs of improvement, including fewer staff turnovers and more timely responses to reports of child abuse, said Jodi Wentland, Hennepin County human services director.
In addition, the county places more kids removed from their homes with other family members instead of emergency shelters, Wentland said. Research shows children are more likely to be emotionally healthy and less likely to act out when they're placed with someone they know and trust, she said.
Still, the county faces significant challenges. The number of children in foster care or other out-of-home placements has climbed, up 11 percent from 2016 to 2017 and on pace to exceed that number this year.
Drug use by parents has replaced neglect as the most common reason children in the county are removed from their homes.
Children are removed from African American and Native American families at a higher rate than white families. DeCubellis said the county is working to address that disparity through community forums and reducing barriers to family members becoming foster or adoptive parents.
Minnesota Supreme Court Associate Justice Anne McKeig, a member of the advisory committee, said she's encouraged by the focus on prevention and the well being of children.
"We know that once these families jump on the train track, once they're too far down, they're too far gone, and we're unable to actually help them," McKeig said.