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A bad report card for Hennepin County’s child-protection system

A federal review of Hennepin County’s child protection system shows troubling results, and given the 2009 county budget outlook things likely will get worse.

This column reported Sept. 15 that federal belt-tightening would squeeze county services for troubled children and families. Hennepin County’s administration issued its 2009 budget proposal Sept. 23 and numbers are coming into focus.

If approved, the budget would cut $13 million from children’s services, said Deborah Huskins, Human Services area director. That includes a $6.5 million cut in county-run services and another $6.5 million in county contracts (mostly with nonprofit agencies serving children and families).

While the county is trying to preserve services to the most vulnerable children, it still is proposing to cut 30 to 40 child protection workers, or nearly 10 percent of the total. Some positions already are vacant.

“We are trying to make sure that we are not cutting too deeply in child protection,” Huskins said. “Unfortunately, we can’t keep it completely insulated.”

Harder hit is the county’s Children, Youth and Families program, which is scheduled for a 20 percent staff cut (referred to in county parlance as a “drawdown”). Those cuts will affect programs for truants, runaways and teen parents, Huskins said.

These cuts put more pressure on the human services nonprofits that contribute to the human services safety net. Some nonprofits will lose direct financial support. Others will be working with children and families in deeper crisis.

Federal review and the money crunch
After the earlier post ran, a reader sent me the July 2008 Minnesota Child and Family Services Review Report, (PDF) a federal review of Minnesota’s child protection system. It’s a picture of families in crisis and the safety net’s current shortcomings.

The report included a review of 64 child protection cases selected from three counties: Hennepin, Washington and Carlton (40 foster care cases and 23 in-home services cases). The review said the state did not meet any of seven key federal benchmarks. (It came close on one.)

In fairness, the federal standards are high. But the stakes are high, too. The review had to find that at least 90 percent of the cases reviewed met a particular goal to rate it as an area of “strength.” As the report explained, since the child welfare agencies work with our country’s most vulnerable children and families, “only the highest standards of performance should be acceptable.”

The first goal is Safety Outcome 1: “Children are first and foremost protected from abuse and neglect.” The feds said only 57.5 percent of the cases reviewed met the criteria, and only 55 percent in Hennepin County. The biggest problem was county response times to abuse or neglect reports.

Huskins said the federal review evaluated Hennepin’s response times based on 16 cases, a very small sample. The county’s internal review says the county has a timely response between 65 and 78 percent of cases, depending on the month.

Still, even for the best month, that falls below the federal target.

Another example. Safety Outcome 2: “Children are safety maintained in their homes when possible and appropriate.” The feds said that only 62.5 percent of cases met the criteria. “There were cases in which services were not provided and children remained in unsafe situations in their homes,” the report said.

The 24-page executive summary makes no mention of financing or federal funding cuts.

Highest and lowest
The state got its highest score — 86 percent — on Well-being Outcome 2: Children receive appropriate services to meet their educational needs. (And Hennepin County hit 90 percent.)

The state’s lowest score was on Well-being Outcome 1: Families have enhanced capacity to provide for their children’s needs. That goal was “substantially met” in only 46.9 percent of cases (and 44 percent for Hennepin).

Combine the federal review and looming cuts, and Huskins is very concerned. The cuts likely mean the county will not able to work as much with families that need longer-term help. She quoted County Administrator Richard Johnson, saying, “We are going to be doing less with less.”

Unfunded mandate
Minnesota has a county-run, state-supervised child protection system. So what’s the reaction from the Minnesota Department of Human Services?

Chuck Johnson, assistant commissioner of state Children and Family Services, said he’s concerned about the review’s findings and the ability to effectively respond given the counties’ budget challenges.

“Obviously we would like to see ourselves performing better than we are,” he said. “These are our most vulnerable children. We should expect nothing less than close to perfection on every case “

Minnesota ranks near the top in child protection spending, Johnson said. It relies on local funding more than other states. He acknowledges that both federal and state cuts have hit child protection services. Yet the state of Minnesota faces a large budget deficit next session, and doesn’t have the cash to help counties hire staff.

However, under Minnesota law, counties are supposed to meet federal and state child protection standards.

“I don’t have an immediate plan or good news on this,” Johnson said. “The hard answer is, this is a responsibility counties have to live up to.”

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Comments (1)

  1. Submitted by Deborah Huskins on 09/30/2008 - 04:00 pm.

    Dear editor:

    There are two clarifications needed to the “A bad report card of Hennepin County’s child-protection system.” Yes, Hennepin County is dealing with the loss of millions in state and federal dollars. The hardest hit area is Human Services and Public Health, but the $13 million cut will be spread across all of human services, not just taken from child protection. Human Services is the largest department within Hennepin, comprising about one third of the overall budget ($500 million) and one third of the staff. Yes, there will be loss of 30 to 40 positions out of approximately 350 in the child protection division. Only 3 will be child protection investigators. The remainder will be from a variety of areas that support child protection, including adoption, kinship and foster care.

    We are doing our best to mitigate the federal loss of dollars to child protection, which is a vital part of the county’s safety net, but there is no doubt that the significant dollar loss will impact the entire human services system.

    Also, it should be noted that the federal review of child protection has failed to give a passing grade to any state, not just Minnesota.

    Despite trying to do more and more with fewer staff and resources, protecting children continues to be one of our highest priorities.

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