Child Protection Workers Offer Solutions to Lawmakers

(Left to right) AFSCME Council 5’s legislative representative Ethan Vogel, Local 66’s John Sundell and Local 151’s Cynthia Hassan offer legislators several ways to help the overburdened child protection system keep kids safe.
(Left to right) AFSCME Council 5’s legislative representative Ethan Vogel, Local 66’s John Sundell and Local 151’s Cynthia Hassan offer legislators several ways to help the overburdened child protection system keep kids safe.

The child protection system is so overburdened, children taken into care have had to stay in DHS offices because workers had nowhere else to bring them.

In St. Louis County, “Children have ended up sleeping on cots in our offices overnight,” says Ramsey County child protection screener Cynthia Hassan of Local 151.

“Those children are sometimes spending multiple days in the exam rooms of an Emergency Room under the supervision of a child protection worker,” Hassan said. “It hasn’t happened just once or twice, it’s happened regularly. Sitting with a kid in an exam room, it is very small, it is not meant to be temporary housing for anybody. But we have absolutely no other choices.”

Child protection workers are dealing with overwhelming caseloads, Hassan and St. Louis County social worker John Sundell told the Minnesota Legislative Task Force on Child Protection Tuesday. They told lawmakers that well-intentioned reforms have had unintended, negative ripple effects across the entire Minnesota child protection system.

“They live with the constant fear someday one of their children will slip through the cracks, will be seriously injured or in the worst case will die,” said AFSCME Council 5 legislative representative Ethan Vogel. “We owe it to them and the children of this state to listen to workers.”

The recommended average caseload is 10, but workers in St. Louis County can have 40 to 50 cases, said Sundell, a Local 66 member.

“We’re getting destroyed,” he said. “Our caseloads are heavier. Children are less safe.”

Hassan, who’s a child protection screener, says caseloads have doubled, but the number of workers has not. The increasing caseloads are making it harder to retain or recruit workers. The state has expanded screening to 24/7, which means counties have had to stretch their workforces even thinner to cover all those additional hours.

“Workers are having incredible levels of stress in their lives,” Hassan said. Many have taken pay cuts and self-demoted, while others are leaving the field entirely.

What adds to that stress is the enormous amount of time workers must spend on paperwork. Hassan estimates they spend only one-third of their time on actual casework with families; the rest is spent doing paperwork and driving children and parents to appointments.

In Ramsey County, for instance, workers frequently have to park four or five blocks away from the office and somehow get several car seats into their vehicles – as often as multiple times a day – to transport kids. Hassan and Sundell asked lawmakers if that’s really how child protection workers should be spending their time?

Sundell suggested that legislators instead fund more clerical support for paperwork and aides to do tasks like driving, which would both free up child protection workers to spend more time with families, and save the state money.

Assistant DHS Commissioner James Koppel says the state is making several changes to try to retain workers, including recognizing just how hard their job is.

“The first step in addressing the secondhand trauma of that work is to know it exists, it is there,” he said. “That is a priority for us.”

The state is also moving toward a collaborative safety model that Koppel hopes will help front-line workers feel more supported in their work.

Hassan applauded that movement.

“The effort that can be put into switching the culture will help,” she said. “If you don’t have the support of your supervisor, why would you want to keep doing it?”

Sundell and Hassan offered several other ideas to legislators to help fix the system:

1) Gain input from child protection workers to keep kids safe

  • Discuss the unintended consequences of reform.
  • Shadow a child protection worker for a day to understand their challenges.

2) Establish and enforce safe caseload standards

  • Meet the recommendation of no more than 10 cases per worker.
  • Direct DHS to recommend caseload standards for screeners and investigators and make a legislative proposal in 2018.
  • Provide new child protection workers with reduced caseloads and don’t give them high-risk cases until they’re trained and certified.

3) Help counties hire, train and recruit

  • Hire case aides and clerical support.
  • Expand Safety Planning to bring families together to make decisions about how to care for children and develop a plan for supportive services, which will reduce costs and relieve the burden on our courts. “It can bring families together, it can bring communities together, it can get them to the table,” Sundell says. “It can improve our standing with the community, with the children and most importantly, keep kids out of placement.”
  • Focus training on Signs of Safety and Family Group Decision-Making, not just how to use technology and file reports.

4) Invest in child protection

  • Fund adequate staffing to respond to reports of abuse in the time required by law.
  • Repeal a law that allows 20 percent of child protection grant allocation dollars to be withheld based on performance. St. Louis County alone lost $1.2 million last year.
  • Secure more foster homes and shelter beds.
  • Provide free daycare so foster families can go to work. “We can’t get foster homes to take babies and little kids,” Sundell said. “They have to pay more money than they’re getting for foster care to place the kids in daycare. Most of our homes, both parents are working. It’s creating a barrier to recruit them and to retain them.”
  • Support treatment programs to help parents recover from substance abuse and access mental health care.

“There are huge barriers to chemical health and mental health services,” Hassan said. “If we’re not able to refer them to adequate services, they’re never going to be set on path to recovery.”