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Minnesota’s child-protection system is inconsistent and underfunded

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 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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Comments (5)

Resources are always limited

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

Maybe the conclusion to draw is that tax dollars should not be spent on housing vulnerable populations in high density. A neighborhood can only provide so many hours toward the social contracts we intend for all Minnesotans.

Make Minnesota The Best Place To Be A Child

Rich Gerrman is right. Minnesota can and must do a more effective job when it comes to child protection. But the solution of creating a safe and health environment for children is not quite as simple as "fix the child protection system." Far too many children suffer trauma and abuse as a result of marital conflict in custody cases or in the aftermath of a custody battle. Children suffer from exposure to domestic violence which is not always subject to child protection oversight. Children in this state neeed champions and they need them now. We need to provide adequate funding for guardian ad litems. We need to no longer accept that the legal process "takes time" when it comes to cases involving the welfare of children. We need to exand the Children's Justice Initative to not simply focus on CHIPS cases but to conduct a broad and effective advance toward the goal of making this the best state in the nation to be a child. Judge Kevin S. Burke

Proper Reporting is Essential

This is a complex issue, but one thing is clear to me. As a past Guardian ad Litem for children in the child protection system, I saw first-hand how the system is not set up to give child well-being primacy. There must be more incentive for families to utilize the services offered on a voluntary basis, because by the time they reach CHIPS, these children have been very traumatized and will continue to be until their cases are resolved.

But whatever policy changes are needed, it is essential that there be thorough and consistent reporting across Minnesota, and the state needs to hold itself and counties accountable, regardless of funding. That means legislative input and oversight.

Custody Legislation

As stated by Kevin Burke, divorce puts many children in unsafe situations and they deserve the protection of the courts. Currently there is law moving through to the floor both in the Senate and the House which will leave them with even less protection. The proposed legislation places the burden of proof to change 50/50 cutody TIME to the level the same as the removal or parental rights standards. This custody proposal will punish individuals who attempt to protect the children if that level of harm is not met. This does nothing to get children into the "system' and protect them in a situation whereby a parent is not "fit" though doesn't meet the standard of removal of parenting rights. HF322/SF1402.

Eventually government and

Eventually government and authorities only works and gives attention to child protection when there's a victim and it is being news all over the community and to the neighboring towns while in fact if it is an ordinary case no one will give an attention to it. Government should be responsible enough in providing protection to its citizens and give them assurance that safety is the primary concern and not just only siting there and doing nothing. We always say that Children are our future, how can they be our future when we cannot give them the protection that is right for them.
missing child