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Hennepin County child protection services overwhelmed with reports of mistreatment

Kaelah, Lashawn, and Byron are three of 339 children waiting for adoption in Hennepin County. In 2009, there were just 94.

Kaelah, Lashawn, and Byron are three of 339 children waiting for adoption in Hennepin County. In 2009, there were just 94. Hennepin County Adoption Services

A year-long inventory of Hennepin County Child Protection Services found overworked social workers and an intense upsurge in abused and neglected children. Mounting expenses are expected to total $26 million over the next three years – not even counting mental or physical healthcare – if the agency continues to get the number of calls it does now.

Investigations are up 74 percent since 2014, and the number of children taken from their homes is up 65 percent. This year alone there will be more than 21,000 child abuse reports – twice that of 2009.

It’s not clear exactly why the caseload has increased, but child protection services statewide have faced great pressure in recent years to save young children like Eric Dean and Kendrea Johnson before they die.

Most child protection cases don't make the newspapers, according to the Child Protection Oversight Committee. More typical stories include the mentally ill mother who strangled her son with a telephone cord; the overweight toddler born to a predatory sex offender father and a depressed mother; the witness who found two children crying outside of their home, and a baby with a handprint bruise on her face crying inside with no adult in sight.

Caseworkers currently juggle 18 or 19 high-conflict families each. Day to day, each staff person is responsible for the well-being of about 50 kids. As a result, yearly turnover among case managers is about 20 percent.

“When we talk about the system being unsustainable, this is exactly what we’re talking about,” says Ann Ahlstrom, oversight committee co-chair. “We have continued to see dollars go up, we’ve continued to see staff resources go up. We need a different model because everything is growing at an astronomical level.”

Hennepin County will look to New Jersey for help stabilizing the workforce and their workload. New Jersey apparently had many of the same problems as Hennepin County, but with some significant financial investment in early intervention services like mental health care, parenting education, and helping distressed parents find and maintain jobs, they were able to reduce their caseworker turnover rate to a healthier 6 percent over 13 years.