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Hennepin County has agreed to sweeping improvements in its child-protection system, pledging to respond more quickly to maltreatment reports and significantly reduce the number of children languishing in foster care.

The landmark agreement, expected to be approved Thursday in federal court, results from a 2017 class-action lawsuit brought by a national child advocacy group, A Better Childhood, on behalf of 10 Minnesota children. The group accused Minnesota's most populous county of operating a "confusing, underfunded and erratic system" that puts children in harm's way by failing to investigate reported abuse and place the children in stable homes.

The proposed changes will increase oversight of the county's child-protection system and usher in new approaches to handling reports of abuse and neglect. To prevent more cases from being overlooked, the county will implement a new, team-based system for screening maltreatment reports and conduct a detailed assessment of the foster care system. And going forward, children who are suspected victims of maltreatment will be interviewed outside the presence of their alleged abusers and away from any parent who knows the abuser, to prevent intimidation and allow for more honest interviews.

Attorneys for both sides said they hope the new practices will eventually become a template for counties across the state and may some day be enshrined in state law.

"It's groundbreaking," said Hennepin County Commissioner Mike Opat, who heads a child well-being advisory committee. "It underscores all that we have done to improve the system and that we are on the path to true reform."

The lengthy agreement concludes more than two years of negotiations and comes amid a wholesale overhaul of the county's child-protection system. The effort has emphasized staff development and reducing child-protection workers' caseloads so they have more time to intervene and help families address underlying issues, such as housing insecurity and substance abuse, before a crisis occurs. To accomplish this shift, the county has doubled its child-protection staff and increased spending on child well-being by 75% since 2015, to $149 million from $85 million.

This heavy investment has been widely credited with lifting the county's child-protection system out of crisis.

Four years ago, public confidence in the system was badly shaken by a string of tragic failures. In a 2014 incident, a 6-year-old girl was found hanging from a jump rope in her chaotic Brooklyn Park foster home; her relatives sued, claiming that the county and the foster care providers knew the girl was suicidal and had severe mental health problems. In a more recent case, two girls with developmental disabilities were found to have endured years of horrific abuse — including being beaten with bats and chained for days at a time without food — by their parents in south Minneapolis, even though county child-protection workers knew of possible abuse years earlier.

These failures brought new attention to the system's flaws at the same time that an opioid epidemic was driving record numbers of children into foster care, straining already overtaxed counties.

"Much to Hennepin County's credit, they didn't try to hunker down and ride out the storm," said Traci LaLiberte, executive director of the University of Minnesota's Center for Advanced Studies in Child Welfare. "They pulled up their sleeves and kept trying to change the tire while the wheel was in motion, which is very hard to do."

Stable placements double

There are promising signs that the reform efforts are working, and child welfare advocates say what was a deeply troubled system has now become a model for the rest of the state. For instance, the amount of time that children in out-of-home care spend with family members increased 40% between 2014 and 2018. That, say county officials, has reduced the potential trauma of children being placed with people they do not know in foster care homes, where the odds of being mistreated are greater.

In addition, the county appears to have turned the corner on the large influx of new maltreatment reports. In 2018, for the first time in six years, more children in Hennepin County left the child welfare system than entered it — a common measure of performance. And another key metric — the percentage of foster children placed in permanent homes within two years — has more than doubled since 2015, to 35% from 16%, according to the county's annual child-protection report.

The county's ongoing efforts to reduce workloads for caseworkers is also paying off: County child protection workers now handle an average of 10 to 12 cases at a time, down from 18 to 20 cases per worker in 2015.

"I would say we are out of crisis. That doesn't mean we're done," said Jennifer DeCubellis, deputy county administrator. "It means we are still building the system but we're not chasing the crisis."

Attorneys said the new court settlement builds on current reform efforts, while requiring more than a dozen new measures. Most notably, deciding whether a maltreatment report is serious enough to warrant investigation will no longer fall to a single child-protection worker. Instead, those decisions will be made by a multidisciplinary team, including community members.

"You simply get a much better result" with a team-based screening approach, said Marcia Robinson Lowry, founder and executive director of A Better Childhood, which is based in New York. "No matter how diligent a [county] caseworker may be, that person may not have the capacity to deal with all the complicated mental health or substance abuse issues in a household."

As part of the settlement, Hennepin County also has agreed to conduct a comprehensive review of the foster care system, including innovative placement options for at-risk children. In addition, the county will create a child welfare "dashboard," to be updated monthly, that will enable the public to track the system's performance on key metrics.

Chris Serres • 612-673-4308 Twitter: @chrisserres