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The number of Minnesota children being removed from their homes because of abuse or neglect declined in 2018 for the first time in nearly a decade, a promising sign that local agencies have improved their ability to reach families before the point of crisis.

New data released Thursday from the Minnesota Department of Human Services (DHS) show that 6,741 children were removed from their homes and placed in foster care in 2018. That marks a 10% decline from the previous year and ends a nine-year increase in family separations, which stemmed in part from new child-protection laws and a surge in parental drug abuse.

However, in a sign of continued stress on families, children entering Minnesota's child welfare system are staying in foster care much longer, extending the separation from their birth parents and producing larger caseloads for county and tribal protection agencies. In addition, Minnesota children who have been removed from their parents are experiencing more moves between foster care homes, which can exacerbate the trauma of their displacement.

"We are modestly encouraged, but we still have a great deal of work to do," said Lisa Bayley, acting assistant commissioner of Children and Family Services at the DHS. "The overall numbers [of removals] are starting to be reduced because of the increased attention to the opioid crisis."

Five years ago, public confidence in the state's child protection system was badly shaken by a series of high-profile failures. In response, then-Gov. Mark Dayton ordered sweeping changes. These included formally putting the best interests of the child above keeping a family intact and requiring that social workers review past abuse reports when considering how to handle a new one. Legislation passed in 2014 also requires child-protection workers to undergo more training and to share abuse reports with police.

Both the state and counties also have taken steps to reduce chronically high turnover among local child protection workers, who had become overwhelmed by surging caseloads and the difficulty of unifying families torn apart by addiction. Now, after years of staffing up, many counties have been able to intervene sooner after a report of maltreatment and address underlying issues, such as housing insecurity or substance abuse, before conditions in the home spiral out of control, child welfare advocates say.

That enhanced training regimen is expected to intensify in the coming months. The Legislature approved funding last spring for the state's first child welfare training academy, which will open a central training facility in Roseville this summer. The center will train approximately 2,000 front-line child protection workers each year, as well as about 250 supervisors, on the best ways to detect when a child is in danger and how to move that child to a safe and permanent home as quickly as possible. Curriculum development is underway and will include input from the public.''

'On a better path'

"Training can't solve all of our problems, but it's a foundational component to putting us on a better path with kids and families," said Traci LaLiberte, executive director of the University of Minnesota's Center for Advanced Studies in Child Welfare, a partner in the training academy.

Still, the opioid epidemic that has ravaged communities across the Midwest is still wreaking havoc. Parental drug abuse continues to be the most common reason that children are taken from their birth parents, accounting for 2,125 new cases, or 31% of all new cases in 2018, continuing a trend that started in 2016, according to the state report.

Another troubling trend is stubbornly high racial disparities. Children of color have long been overrepresented in Minnesota's child welfare system, and that has shown only slight progress. In 2018, black children in Minnesota were nearly three times more likely to be removed from their birth parents than white children; American Indian children were 18.2 times more likely, according to the DHS report. Children under age 2 and those ages 15 to 17 were still the most likely age groups to experience out-of-home care.

"It's terrible," Bayley said of the persistent racial disparities. "It's something that we talk about every day, and we need to make more progress."

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