Child abuse in Minnesota: A new approach

Every year Minnesota’s child protection staff screen in approximately 18,000 reports of child maltreatment for review. Nearly 70% of these are assigned to the state’s voluntary Family Assessment program. Though the purpose of the program is to promote family stability and child safety, recent data indicates that few families receive any services.

Family Assessment has been in place in Minnesota for 10 years. It’s the state’s name for a national trend in child protection practices called ‘Differential Response.’ These programs offer families the opportunity to work voluntarily with child protection to avoid the court process and keep their records clean of any child maltreatment reports.

Like similar programs in other states, Family Assessment is based on research by the American Humane Association and others showing that families are more receptive to child protection staff when offered an assessment rather than being confronted with an investigation. It also recognizes that the formal child welfare system can become more burden than support, since the requirements imposed by both the courts and the social services department – therapy, anger management programs, caseworker visits, parenting skills training – typically add up to a part-time job.

But what happens if parents fail to cooperate while their children remain at high risk? In some counties, a parent can simply say, “No, thank you.” and the case is closed. And what if there are no services? Available data indicates that perhaps only 15% of families assigned to Family Assessment statewide actually receive services. In Hennepin County an appointed Citizen’s Review Panel found that three out of four families aren’t even offered services.

So in a very high percentage of cases the promise of Differential Response is unrealized in Minnesota. While the traditional court process has its problems, at least in that system someone is aware of these children and has the authority to protect them. Now most of them are on no one’s radar.

Family Assessment is still the better option for most children, but only if it is implemented as designed. That takes resources. It is difficult to trace the history of child welfare funding in Minnesota, but our estimates are that state contributions to child protection and foster care have been cut from over $100 million in 2002 to approximately $38 million today. It’s unrealistic to expect counties to implement Family Assessment effectively if they have to cut corners at every turn. Children in high risk situations cannot afford to be compromised by an ineffective system, which is why it’s time for Minnesota to reinvest in child welfare.

Rich Gehrman is Executive Director at Safe Passage for Children of Minnesota, a citizen group advocating for improvements to Minnesota’s child welfare system. James Parkington is a writer and researcher with the organization.

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