Family Preservation Falters in the Heartland

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Credit: The Minnesota Star Tribune Gov. Mark Dayton speaks at the first session of his task force on child protection in 2014.

On New Year’s Eve, the Minnesota Department of Human Services released a slate of recommendations, which call for dismantling much of the child protection philosophy that has dominated the state for the past 15 years.

“Minnesota’s child protection system has moved from one end of a spectrum to another since 1999,” the Initial Recommendations of the Governor’s Task Force on the Protection of Children reads. “Prior to 2000, it was very focused on forensic investigations, working in concert with law enforcement and often at odds with communities and families. There was not enough client engagement and too few efforts to strengthen families. Fast forward to our system today when family engagement is our primary focus, paramount in all we do. At times this focus is at odds with protecting children.”

This very public admission that Minnesota has likely compromised child safety for family engagement casts serious doubts on some of the prevailing assumptions that are driving child protection policy across the country today, and may very well slow the steady march of a highly popular child welfare strategy known as Differential Response (DR).

In 2000, Minnesota’s Department of Human Services (DHS) embarked on journey to soften its interactions with families suspected of abuse or neglect. To do so it employed DR, a nascent strategy that Missouri had experimented with.

The basic idea behind DR is to break cases of suspected child abuse and neglect that warrant further investigation into two tracks. In the new “family assessment” track child abuse investigators offer of voluntary services to entice engagement from families, while workers on the traditional track rely on the old threat of removing children to force families into compliance.

In 1999 a delegation of Minnesota child protection administrators and elected officials traveled to Missouri to see DR in action. Among them was Erin Sullivan Sutton, who would go on to serve as DHS’ assistant commissioner for Child and Family Services from 2010 until her dismissal in November 2014.

In 2013, I sat down with Sullivan Sutton to discuss why she had spent more than a decade working to see DR – or as it is called in Minnesota, Family Assessment Response – spread to all 87 counties in the state.

She described the process before DR as formulaic and unsupportive.

“We treated every family exactly the same,” she said in DHS’ St. Paul headquarters. “So you [CPS] went in and you determined this: ‘Parent, did you do something bad to your kid?’ And then, after that the family may or may not get services. So it really was not a constructive relationship, and of course, when parents were approached by child protection they became very defensive; and didn’t want to work with child protection for obvious reasons, for the threat of losing their children.”

Sullivan Sutton said she thought that using DR could change child protection workers’ relationships with families. But what she and a growing array of DR supporters did not fully anticipate was the potential child safety risks that came with the new approach.

Those child safety threats became terribly real in September 2014 when The Minnesota Star Tribune published reporter Brandon Stahl’s shocking tale of four-year-old Eric Dean, who died at the hands of his stepmother the year before. The story revealed that the social worker charged with investigating Dean’s case had conducted one formal investigation and two “family assessments.”

That social worker, Kelly Lurkin-Tvrdik, was deposed as a part of the criminal proceedings that would ultimately convict Dean’s stepmother of murder. When asked by a prosecuting attorney whether the stepmother had taken her up on the offer of voluntary services, Lukin-Tvrdik’s response was chilling.

“They were always declined,” she replied.

Less than two weeks after Stahl’s story hit the Star Tribune, Gov. Mark Dayton issued an order creating a Task Force on the Protection of Children. Dayton announced the appointees to the 26-member task force a week later, and ordered them to come back with initial recommendations on Dec. 31, 2014.

Those recommendations call for the immediate reversal of a state law that precludes social workers screening calls of abuse or neglect from considering prior reports when deciding to investigate. They also call for a broader definition of physical abuse that would presumably ratchet up attention on cases that may deserve heightened scrutiny.

But, most importantly, the task force made the incredible assertion that DHS’ use of family assessment had gone too far and that the whole program was due for an overhaul.

“Since the implementation of family assessment in the early 2000s, its use and application has grown exponentially,” the recommendations read. “Currently, more than 70 percent of all screened-in reports are assigned to family assessment. This has included high-risk maltreatment allegations, sexual abuse allegations, and cases that meet the definition of substantial child endangerment. It is clear that Minnesota’s use of family assessment is beyond that of other states and beyond what the statute allows. The use of family assessment continues to rise despite the fact that the re-report rate for family assessment has been higher than family investigation in five of the last seven years. This practice is of concern and must be addressed.”

The first item on the agenda is making sure that family assessment is no longer the “preferred” response to reports of child abuse in state statute.

This development will likely travel beyond Minnesota’s borders. DR is now being used in at least half the states in the Union. Recent federally funded studies of DR in Ohio, Illinois and Colorado have shown mixed results in terms of whether or not children are safer on the voluntary family assessment track or the traditional investigative track.

With the strategy under fire in the state that once served as its biggest champion, 2015 may be the year that DR’s rampant growth across the country slows, stops or even reverses.

Daniel Heimpel is the founder of Fostering Media Connections and the publisher of The Chronicle of Social Change.  

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Daniel Heimpel
About Daniel Heimpel 192 Articles
Daniel is the founder of Fostering Media Connections and the publisher of The Chronicle of Social Change.