Workers Testify at Capitol to Keep Kids Safe

Cynthia Hassan of Ramsey County and Sara Crotteau of Hennepin County, who are both child protection workers, testify at the state Capitol Tuesday to let lawmakers know the challenges facing workers and the kids they try to keep safe.
Cynthia Hassan of Ramsey County and Sara Crotteau of Hennepin County, who are both child protection workers, testify at the state Capitol Tuesday to let lawmakers know the challenges facing workers and the kids they try to keep safe.

About 30 social workers from across Minnesota appealed to legislators Tuesday to listen to their ideas about how to improve the child protection system and keep kids safe.

“We’re experienced, we’re educated, we see the work day-to-day, we’re invested in the work we do, and our input should be valuable,” said Hennepin County child protection social worker Sara Crotteau. She and other members of AFSCME Council 5 testified before the Legislative Task Force on Child Protection.

The legislative task force, which held its first hearing of the year Tuesday, was formed to review recommendations from the 2014-2015 Governor’s Task Force on the Protection of Children and to identify additional child welfare issues.

Alayna Lull, Jessie Metzinger, Hannah Checketts, Brian Thorbjornsen and Local 66 president Dennis Frazier, all child protection workers from St. Louis County, pay rapt attention at the first meeting of the Legislative Task Force on Child Protection Tuesday.
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Crotteau told legislators that the previous task force made a number of recommendations that were well-intentioned. But some of those recommendations have had unintended consequences such as increased caseloads that could hurt kids and their families. That earlier task force didn’t include a child protection worker.

“Nobody asked for our input prior to making recommendations on such a large scale that have had significant consequences on the work we do, families we’re serving across the state and the safety of the kids we’re all trying to protect,” said Crotteau, an AFSCME Local 34 member.

 “We’re the ones sitting with that 16-year-old kid who we can’t find a foster home for and have nowhere to send that night,” she said. “We’re the ones worrying, who can’t sleep at night because of the baby the courts sent home against our recommendation. We’re the ones explaining to that 3-year-old boy with the supervised visit with his mom why he can’t go home. We’re the ones who see firsthand the trauma kids go through as a consequence of being involved in this system.”

Eighteen social workers came from St. Louis County to testify and show support, along with child protection workers from Hennepin and Ramsey Counties.
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Assistant DHS Commissioner James Koppel told lawmakers that since the original task force recommendations came out, the number of abuse and neglect reports went up 25 percent in a single year. More reports and new screening guidelines led to a 43 percent jump in investigations, which in turn led to more children placed out of their homes and a shortage of foster care placements.

Additional funding approved to help put the initial recommendations in place was eaten up “and then some” by all these increases, Koppel said.

“When you make changes in the front end, it creates change that reverberates throughout the system,” Koppel said. He says DHS is working to include county workers and counties in the process, acknowledging they have expertise that needs to be tapped. He says it’s important that workers feel supported and want to remain in their jobs so families feel supported, too.

That huge jump in caseloads is being felt across the state. In Ramsey County, it’s at an “emergency level,” child protection screener Cynthia Hassan told lawmakers. Child protection investigators have caseloads as high as 30 or 35.

That’s led to 20 openings in child protection in Ramsey County, said Local 151 member Hassan. She said they have seasoned workers who can’t sleep, who are becoming sick, and who struggle with mental health issues. Some are leaving their jobs, while others are taking pay cuts and self-demotions to move to less stressful jobs.

“They cannot in good conscience continue to attempt to do work that is required and in good faith try to provide safety nets for children when the sheer volume of cases is more than one person can ever manage,” Hassan said. “We’re just in a position of feeling really desperate and don’t know what else to do. Help us continue to help children.”

Child protection workers said they wanted to inform lawmakers about the struggles workers face in keeping kids safe – and to offer solutions, too.

“We’re the experts so we want to be heard,” said John Sundell from Local 66 in St. Louis County. He told lawmakers he’s working on an innovative new project called safety planning that involves meeting with families and figuring out what works for them. He said the focus is on group decision making and trying to get creative in addressing the family’s issues, rather than intervening in the end.

Without additional staffing or trying solutions like this, Sundell told lawmakers, “We are really triaging the triage. It’s like we’re the doctors and nurses, and we have all the patients in the room. We can only deal with the really bad ones over here. (The others) we put a Band-Aid on ... None of us signed up for that. We want to be able to do that same work for every person. That’s why we’re here. We have a lot of ideas and solutions.”

Workers asked legislators for 30 minutes at their next meeting to explain in detail about the unintended consequences of the previous reforms and to offer their ideas.

State Rep. Dave Pinto, an AFSCME member himself, told them that he’ll work to help make that happen.