Trying to ‘Triage the Triage’

Brenda Louise (Hennepin County, right), Nikki Castona (left, Ramsey County) and other social workers from across Minnesota tell legislators about the urgent need for more resources to keep kids safe.
Brenda Louise (Hennepin County, right), Nikki Castona (left, Ramsey County) and other social workers from across Minnesota tell legislators about the urgent need for more resources to keep kids safe.

Child protection workers from across Minnesota recently went to the state Capitol to meet with legislators and tell them how heavy caseloads are hurting kids and families.

Workers from Hennepin, Ramsey and St. Louis counties say they’re stretched so thin, they’re “trying to triage the triage.”

“We’ve inundated the staff and made it difficult to accomplish the work,” says Ramsey County social worker Paul McDonald of Local 151. “It’s created more concerns for child safety.”

He was part of a group of 20 AFSCME Council 5 members who talked with state legislators, asking them to provide funding so counties can hire, train and retain child protection workers. Members also left 317 voice messages. The workers plan to keep lobbying at the Capitol every week the Legislature is in session.

AFSCME members meet with Sen. Jeff Hayden, who says he'll work to get a hearing so workers can share the impact of child protection reforms on kids and their families.
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These social workers screen, investigate and oversee child abuse and neglect cases, and every part of that system is overwhelmed. The long hours and constant stress are leading to rapid turnover, voluntary demotions, and difficulty recruiting and training new hires.

Many child protection social workers report up to 20 cases, or more. That’s double the maximum caseload of 10 recommended by the Child Protection Task Force.

These weighty caseloads were caused by new screening guidelines intended to keep kids safe. But those guidelines have had unintended consequences: More low-risk cases are flooding in, inflating workloads and creating shortages in shelter space and foster homes.

“We all fully recognize the intentions of the task force were really good and wanted to keep kids safe and provide good outcomes for families,” says Hennepin County child protection social worker Sara Crotteau of AFSCME Local 34. “In reality, what we’re seeing is the state mandated changes that were not fully funded, and counties were not fully prepared to implement them.”

In Hennepin County, the number of reports generated rose from 10,905 to more than 20,258 in just seven years, says screener and social worker Kirsten Hedlund.

In Ramsey County, investigations are up 70 percent and three-quarters of the staff has left their jobs, says John Ekholm, an AFSCME Local 151 member and child protection worker.

St. Louis County reports the number of reports of child maltreatment is up 45 percent in just two years.

Take Crotteau as an example: She has 19 cases on her plate with 59 kids.

“In one month, it’s impossible to see all 59 kids and have a meaningful visit with them to really assess their safety and their wellbeing,” she says. “Systems in these counties are completely overworked. In my opinion, kids are even more unsafe now than they were before the task force recommendations went into place.”

Under the new guidelines, if a child was punched two years ago, workers must rule that in for investigation right alongside current cases of broken bones, sexual abuse or a cracked skull, McDonald says. That takes resources away from those most at risk.

Child protection workers, from left to right, Sara Crotteau (Hennepin County), Paul McDonald (Ramsey County), James Jago (St. Louis County) and Becky Rios (Ramsey County) share their concerns with Rep. Diane Loeffler.
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Hennepin County child protection social worker Brenda Louise has 21 cases.  The AFSCME Local 34 member told lawmakers she worked with a family where police had to remove the children and place them with a relative. There wasn’t time for a background check. When the case made its way to Louise three weeks later to see if the family could be licensed to provide foster care, she discovered there might be a registered sex offender in the home.

“We are not able to adequately manage the workload with the number of children we are required to see,” Louise says. “I have not, for a month and a half, been able to do any paperwork toward getting a child in foster care into a day treatment program. Yes, great, I caught this one case of potential risk to children, but every day, I am lying in bed at night not able to sleep because I know that kid who needs day treatment is not getting it, and he’s probably not going to get it tomorrow or the next day because of the number of families I’m expected to work with.”

The hefty caseloads are delaying or even preventing adoptions. Kids who can’t ever return home safely remain in foster care because there isn’t time to do the paperwork and set up the tests needed for adoption, Louise says.

The workers are asking lawmakers for funding to allow counties to hire, train and then keep enough staff to help keep kids and families safe.

Workers met with several lawmakers on both sides of the aisle who care about kids. The GOP controls the House and Senate, so AFSCME will be looking for Republican lawmakers to sign onto legislation to increase that funding.

AFSCME members meet wirh Rep. Dave Pinto (left) and Rep. Diane Loeffler (center, gray sweater).
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Sen. Jeff Hayden and Reps. Dave Pinto and Rena Moran (DFL) said they’ll work to arrange a hearing so workers can share the real-life impact of the new guidelines.

“You are as important as firefighters. You put out the fires in families’ lives,” Rep. Diane Loeffler told the AFSCME members.

Workers also want a seat at the table to have a say in policy changes that affect workers and the families they serve, and how those changes will be put into place, Hedlund says.

“We’re the people seeing the reports coming in, we’re the people doing the work on the ground,” she says. “Our voices aren’t heard on that level.”