Minnesota responds to three in ten reports of child abuse. Could a policy that precludes consideration of prior allegations be to blame?
Faced with serious concerns about its response to reports of child abuse, Minnesota’s Department of Human Services (DHS) will consider amending a critical line in its guidance on child abuse screening this summer.
Over the spring, reporter Brandon Stahl of The Minnesota Star Tribune wrote a pair of stories chronicling the wide inconsistencies and low rate of investigation of alleged child abuse in the state’s 87 counties, alongside the tragic fate of seven children who died after child protective services contact in 2013.
In addition, a bill to amend the state’s screening practices was signed by the Governor last month. But the original legislation, which was the outgrowth of a 2012 audit that alluded to many of the problems Stahl would later describe in sharp relief, was so pared down in the state’s two-year legislative session that the new law’s effectiveness is left in doubt.
This leaves DHS with the difficult task of creating consistency across the state’s 87 counties, which range from the urban and suburban areas around Minneapolis to small jurisdictions abutting the great North Woods.
In Minnesota, 71 percent of cases of suspected child abuse are screened out, according to data compiled by the Star Tribune. This is the third lowest response rate to alleged child abuse in the country, according to the Children’s Bureau. The average rate of screened out reports across the country was 38 percent in 2012.
“We are out of line with the country,” said Rich Gehrman of Safe Passage for Children, the St. Paul-based advocacy group behind the screening legislation. “We screen in 28 percent versus 62 percent for the rest of the country. That is the story. Why are we so different?”
Gehrman posits that DHS is overburdened and under-resourced. But he said that this was only a “theory” and that with “87 counties and 87 different ways of setting up shop, it is almost impossible to get quality info.”
A more concrete contributing factor to the low response rates could be guidance that DHS issued in 2012, which directed counties to disregard prior allegations of child abuse and neglect when determining whether or not to send out a social worker to investigate child abuse and response.
“A policy that routinely disregards prior complaints of suspected or actual child maltreatment, in my view, places children needlessly at risk of harm,” said Frank Vandervort, a law professor at the University of Michigan’s Law School in an e-mail to The Chronicle of Social Change.
Vandervort also pointed out that Michigan requires a heightened response for reports of abuse when prior allegations have been lodged against a family. “It [Minn.’s policy] disregards important indicators of child safety and well-being and defies common sense.”
It is a subject that the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services has taken a recent interest in. Proposed changes to the Child and Family Services Review process include a requirement that states report on the number of children who are re-reported for maltreatment within a year, regardless of substantiation.
Tony Loman, a researcher with the Institute for Applied Research, which has conducted a handful of studies on Minnesota’s response to child abuse, offered an explanation for the policy.
“They’re trying to guard against a kind of knee-jerk reaction that says, ‘oh this family, we’ve seen them before, so obviously we have to investigate them,” Loman said in an interview last summer.
Erin Sullivan Sutton, assistant commissioner of Children and Family Services for Minnesota’s Dept. of Human Services, echoed Loman’s rationale in an email sent to The Chronicle.
“Every report should be considered on its’ own fact presentation as to whether the current allegation constitutes child maltreatment,” Sullivan Sutton wrote. “An incident two years ago, either screened out or screened in, should not determine the current fact presentation. Past history is, however, relevant to the decision as to the offer of services.”
Sullivan Sutton went on to say that the policy did not contribute to state’s overall response rate to allegations of abuse. Rather that the majority of cases, which are screened out, don’t meet the statutory threshold for investigation.
Judith Rycus, co-founder of the Ohio-based Institute for Human Services, who has years of experience training social workers in how to investigate allegations of abuse, was nonplussed by the policy.
“Children’s Research Center (CRC), which did all the work on Structured Decision Making (SDM) and used years of research to build reliable and valid actuarial risk assessment instruments, determined that the single most relevant risk factor in estimating future occurrences of child maltreatment was prior maltreatment,” Rycus said in an email. “In this context, it is misguided at best, insane at worst to fail to consider prior allegations in determining whether to screen in. I find it very strange why Minnesota would create such a policy, especially because I think they were one of the first adopters of the SDM model.”
Dan Koziolek, director of Community Social Services in Carver County, a suburb of the Twin Cities, is familiar with similar research and is thus conflicted about DHS’ guidance.
“Research tells us that the number of reports that come in are the best indicator of children at risk,” Kozoliek said. “If that is what the research is telling us it would be my preference to have policy and statutes that direct us to do our work in accordance with what that research indicates.”
While the new law promoted by Safe Passage for Children directs agencies to keep allegations of abuse on file for 365 days, it falls short of compelling jurisdictions to use that information when determining whether or not to send a caseworker out. This leaves it up to county directors to work around DHS guidance, or for DHS to change the guidance itself.
“A determination on this [changing the guidance] has not been made,” Sullivan Sutton said in an email. “On an annual basis, we bring together a group of stakeholders to review the guidelines with us and to make changes that may be needed.”
That meeting will be held in July.
“This point will be an agenda item at the meeting,” Sullivan Sutton wrote. “A finalized version of any revisions to the screening guidelines must be available for counties and tribes by mid-August when many mandated reporter trainings are held.”
Daniel Heimpel is the founder of Fostering Media Connections and the publisher of The Chronicle of Social Change.