As Minnesota considers child protection reforms, should responsibility fall to state or counties? – Star Tribune

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Though Minnesota is one of just nine states in which counties control the delivery of child protection services, there is no evidence that a purely state-run system would improve outcomes for abused children, experts told state legislators Thursday.

“Could we shift to more of a state-operated system? You could, but there is a trade-off,” said Traci LaLiberte, executive director of the Center for Advanced Studies in Child Welfare at the University of Minnesota. “There [are] huge financial implications. It isn’t necessarily going to garner you better outcomes.”

Restructuring Minnesota’s child protection system was one of the main subjects of discussion at Thursday’s meeting of the Legislative Task Force on Child Protection, which met for the second time in two months to address widespread failures identified in a recent Star Tribune investigation.

The Star Tribune’s reporting revealed that hundreds of children are harmed each year when county officials return them to parents who have not addressed problems that prompted the removal of their children to foster care.

Since 2012, at least 86 children died from maltreatment after Minnesota’s child protection system failed to protect them from caregivers with a history of abuse or neglect. Another 11 children died from suicide after a child protection case was filed on their behalf, including a 6-year-old girl.

The investigation has prompted vows to reform the system, but some advocates have complained that state officials made similar promises following a 2014 investigation by the newspaper that led to nearly 100 proposed reforms. Many of the key proposals, however, were never implemented.

“It is time to stop talking about the problem and do something about it,” Ann Hill, state ombudsperson for African American Families, told the task force Thursday. “It shouldn’t be difficult to identify areas where we need targeted investment.”

DFL Gov. Tim Walz has said he will propose a spending boost this year to allow counties to add child protection workers, but one advocate for abused children warned against expanding a system “where no accountability exists.”

“When egregious harm happens, many of us are quick to blame the system,” said Ariana Guerra, policy and advocacy manager for a Foster Advocates, a Minnesota nonprofit. “We disagree. We believe these are not system failures but the system doing exactly what it is designed to do. The harm to families is not an unintended consequence — it is built into the foundation of the child protection system.”

Several speakers suggested that Minnesota would benefit by moving some child protective services to the state but leaving the bulk of them under county control.

Rep. Kim Hicks, DFL-Rochester, told the task force she wants to examine the idea of shifting the screening of maltreatment reports to the state — a key recommendation of a prior task force.

That issue has been a point of contention since 2014, when a Star Tribune investigation showed that Minnesota was failing to take action on an unusually high percentage of child abuse reports.

In 2021, the last year for which data is available, county workers screened out about two-thirds of the nearly 80,000 referrals they received for child protection. Only five states screened out more, federal records show.

LaLiberte agreed that it may make sense for the state to take over the screening of maltreatment calls, saying it would likely result in greater consistency and more accountability.

“When we look across Minnesota, we want to make sure that regardless of where kids and families live, they are being assessed equally,” LaLiberte said.

Sen. Bobby Joe Champion, DFL-Minneapolis, cautioned that a major shift in screening responsibilities could inadvertently harm people of color, noting that Black and Native American children are already disproportionally affected by child protection practices.

Champion said the speed at which the task force is moving “causes me a little trepidation.”

Hicks said she would meet with all groups affected by the proposal to reach consensus on how a centralized system should work. But she said legislators must act with a sense of urgency.

“We don’t want to take too long,” Hicks said. “There is already a lot of information that is already out there. … Doing nothing is a choice, but it is typically a bad one.”

Guerra said the current system is failing many children, noting that just 3% of children who wind up in foster care obtain college degrees while 41% fail to obtain stable housing when they become adults, resulting in danger of becoming homeless.

“We have to ask ourselves: Are we OK with this?” said Guerra, who said legislators should focus on funding antipoverty programs that would help keep more children out of foster care.

In Minnesota’s county-run system, more than 80 agencies provide child protective services, Legislative Auditor Judy Randall noted in a previous appearance before the committee.

Randall’s agency said Minnesota’s decentralized system suffers from “inconsistencies” in services provided to families and “fragmented oversight” of cases and law enforcement’s child protection actions.

LaLiberte said that there is little research comparing state- vs. county-run child protection systems, and she noted that county officials continue to have significant input in 35 state-run systems.

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