See more of the story

Minnesota lawmakers are re-examining the state's child protection system following a Star Tribune report that revealed hundreds of children are harmed each year after being reunited with their parents.

Members of the Legislative Task Force on Child Protection met Monday for the first time this year for a sweeping discussion of how maltreatment reports are screened, staffing and service shortages and the state's county-based child welfare system. DFL Sen. Nicole Mitchell, who co-chairs the task force, said she doesn't want to "overcorrect" but wants the task force to offer "actual legislation on ways that we can better serve the children of Minnesota."

A dozen children who had a history with child protection died from maltreatment in 2021, the second highest number in at least a decade. Minnesota's rate of victims who have experienced repeat abuse has jumped and is twice the national average.

DFL Gov. Tim Walz has said he will propose a spending boost next year to allow counties to add child protection workers, noting that more resources are clearly needed to investigate abuse reports.

"The death or abuse of any child is a tragedy for our communities. Our entire human services system throughout Minnesota is committed to child safety. It is also committed to keeping families together wherever feasible. This is delicate and difficult work," Department of Human Services Commissioner Jodi Harpstead said, adding that more funding "can only help give these frontline workers the time and space they need to gather information and offer their best judgments to the courts."

In Minnesota's county-run system, more than 80 agencies provide child protective services, Legislative Auditor Judy Randall noted. Minnesota is one of nine states that doesn't use a state-administered system.

Randall's agency said Minnesota's decentralized system suffers from "inconsistencies" in services provided to families and "fragmented oversight" of cases and law enforcement's child protection actions.

"We, too, have been reading the Star Tribune series with our hearts full," Randall said, adding that the individual cases were "awful to read about."

Mitchell, of Woodbury, previously suggested legislators should consider significant changes to the state's system for keeping kids safe, and questioned whether to continue having counties run child protection services. She asked the auditor's office whether Minnesota's system, where local government pays for about half of the cost of child protective services, is leading to "big disparities" in the level of services provided.

"I believe that is most likely the case," said David Kirchner, a report manager with the auditor's office.

Kirchner said that situation could be most dire in rural counties, where a single family with four or five kids could cause an agency's budget to increase by 50% over the prior year.

Lawmakers also delved into the state's "dual track" process for handling reports. County staff channel reports of potential neglect or abuse to either Family Assessment or investigation.

The less-punitive Family Assessment approach is supposed to address cases where there's not "substantial" endangerment or sexual abuse. Social services staff examine families' needs and strengths through the assessment process and try to connect them with resources.

But families often cycle through the assessment system, a Star Tribune review of cases found. And in 22 situations where a parent was at least partly blamed for the death of a child, the family had previously been directed to Family Assessment.

Some child protection staff and researchers have said no more than a third of credible abuse and neglect reports should be handled through Family Assessment. But nearly two-thirds of maltreatment reports were channeled to that alternative route last year, up from about 47% in 2005.

Rep. Patricia Mueller, R-Austin, asked Harpstead to address the Star Tribune's finding that some supervisors said they had been pressured by DHS officials to steer serious abuse and neglect cases to Family Assessment instead of investigating those cases.

"We have all been pretty shocked by what we have been reading," Mueller said. "I think it is really important that people are held accountable."

Mueller asked Harpstead if she could say who would have asked county workers to "ignore their best judgment."

"We have no practice in the Department of Human Services of pressuring our counties to go against their better judgment," Harpstead said. "There is no policy in the Walz administration to do such a thing."

Mitchell said one of the complaints she received recently involved a family that has a child with autism who was prone to "violent outbursts" and had its case sent to Family Assessment after the child attacked another kid. She said the parents still were unable to get the services they needed to help their child.

"What I am hearing is that families aren't always ... getting the support they need," Mitchell said. "How can we do a better job of supporting families?"

DHS officials acknowledged that some families are not getting timely access to services involving mental health, substance abuse and other issues.

"We know there are substantial shortages in services," said Bharti Wahi, a deputy assistant commissioner with DHS.

Two task force members pressed DHS officials on the case loads handled by child protection workers. Some workers are handling as many as 20 cases at a time, or twice the number recommended by a prior task force on child protection.

Rep. Jessica Hanson, DFL-Burnsville, noted that counties need to fill 16,000 social worker jobs, which is making the problem worse.

"The case loads are too high," she said.

Wahi said she did not have current case load data for the state, but promised to gather that information for the task force.

Minneapolis DFL Rep. Hodan Hassan, who worked as a social worker, said the system suffers from bias that harms families of color, which continue to experience disproportionate rates of removal. She said too many workers have blinders that make it impossible for them to properly determine who qualifies as a "bad parent."

"The system is really broken," Hassan said.