In 2000, Minnesota launched a pilot for its now statewide differential response (DR) program. DR is a popular child protection strategy with mixed results, in which help is offered to abusive or neglectful parents, but rarely forced upon them.
More than seven of every ten “screened-in” cases of abuse and neglect in Minnesota were placed on the “family assessment” track, according to the Department of Human Services’ (DHS) website.
But the state’s 71 percent diversion to DR appears to reflect the desire of DHS administrators more than it does the decisions and policies of local child welfare leaders. The Chronicle of Social Change has learned that DHS expected each of Minnesota’s 87 counties to place 70 percent of screened-in cases on the DR track.
“They set this target number up for all 87 counties, and said, ‘You should be doing like 70 percent of all your assessments as family assessment,’” said Greg Gardner, the former child protection investigation supervisor for Hennepin County Child Protective Services in an interview last summer.
Pushing a de facto quota on counties without accounting for varying populations and socioeconomic factors, he said, “is rather short sighted.”
The information casts a new light on the tragic circumstances involved in the death of Eric Dean, a four-year old Minnesota who died in a St. Cloud hospital following a brutal beating by his stepmother, according to an August story published by The Minnesota Star Tribune.
Dean had been involved in 15 different abuse and neglect reports; each time, the Pope County investigators kept him at home. Two formal assessments were made alongside offers of assistance, which his stepmother refused.
Differential Response Spreads Across the Nation
In 2000, Minnesota launched its DR pilot, making it one of the early adopters for a practice that has spread to at least half the states in the Union.
The strategy has a number of moving parts, but the basic idea is that caregivers who have received less severe allegations of abuse or neglect should be treated differently than those accused of more dangerous behavior.
A hallmark of DR is the reliance on voluntary services for families placed on the alternative track. While thought to foster compliance, there is limited evidence that children are safer when their families are offered voluntary services, as opposed to families being forced to complete services or lose their children, as happens in the traditional track.
A federally funded evaluation of three states that had implemented DR came up with mixed results. In Ohio families on the alternative track were safer than those on the traditional track; in Colorado, there was virtually no difference between the two tracks; and in Illinois children in the DR track were markedly less safe.
The strategy has some national child protection leaders concerned about the potential for botched assessments and over-reliance on voluntary services.
“I know and can tell [you] we probably have instances where the assessment was poorly done and the family rejected the voluntary nature of the help they were being offered,” said John Mattingly, the former commissioner of New York City’s child protection system. “Some of those children are going to die.”
Child fatalities account for most of the headlines involving child protection systems, and thus drive an inordinate amount of reform. But the perils of poor assessments with differential response make child deaths just the visible tip of the iceberg, Mattingly said.
“Far more of those children are going to struggle alone with abuse and neglect, who grow up in situations we don’t want our children to be in,” he said. “And I believe that is what is going to happen with differential response.”
Quotas Guide Child Protection Response
Uneven assessment quality is one challenge to using DR. The decision to use DR when the assessment suggests otherwise is even more troublesome. Yet that is precisely what Hennepin County’s Gardner suggested is happening.
Other systems implementing DR have used 70 percent diversion as a goal. Franklin County, Ohio used that figure when it rolled out DR in 2007, said Eric Fenner, the county’s former child welfare director.
“That was an assumption based on history,” Fenner, now a managing director at Casey Family Programs, said. “We went back ten years to determine what percentage of cases…were coming to our front door that we accepted for investigation, turned out to be a finding, or that we took a formalized action, a case opened, a filing in court, a child came into foster care. So, when we made our assumption – our goals of 70 percent – that was based on our history. It wasn’t a number that was just pulled out of the sky.”
After this story was published, The Chronicle of Social Change received an email from Karen Smigielski, communications manager for Minnesota’s Department of Human Services, saying that an email had been sent on Sept. 16, answering queries about the 70 percent goal Gardner had cited.
“There is not a target or goal that 70% of accepted reports receive a Family Assessment Response – this is a statewide average,” Smigielski wrote. “We track this data quarterly and contact counties that are either well above or well below this statewide average to discuss their practice.”
In Hennepin County, Gardner said he had strong reservations about DHS’ expectations on differential response, but acquiesced. “We started having to make internal adjustments to get our numbers to hit the target numbers.”
Asked if those adjustments meant steering higher-risk cases onto the DR track, Gardner said:
“That’s what started happening, is that cases that initially we would not put on the family assessment track, or cases that would score out high, that we would previously switch over to the investigation track, we were now keeping on the family assessment track, in order to try to maintain the state target numbers.”
In February 2013, the worst happened in Starbuck, Minn. As described by The Minneapolis Star Tribune’s Brandon Stahl, a young boy who had come to the attention of child protective services multiple times was ultimately beat so badly that his intestines ruptured. Two days and one more beating later, he would go into shock and die.
During the criminal proceedings that would culminate with a first-degree murder conviction for Eric Dean’s stepmother in May, Assistant Attorney General Robert Plesha deposed Kelly Lurkin-Tvrdik,the social worker who had conducted one investigation and two family assessments that didn’t result in Eric’s removal.
“Were services that were offered sometimes declined?” Plesha asked, according to an interview with Stahl, who was reading from court documents.
“They were always declined,” Lurkin-Tvrdik replied.
Daniel Heimpel is the founder of Fostering Media Connections and the publisher of the Chronicle of Social Change.
UPDATE: This article was updated on Sept. 22 to include an emailed response that the Minnesota Department of Human Services says it sent on Sept. 16.