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County child protection problems revealed (10/28/2012)
By Sarah Squires

Winona County Commissioners took a look last week at county child protection data generated by the state. They were hoping to learn more about what went wrong with the service during 2011. The state reported child risk and safety were adequately addressed in only 37.5 percent of child protection cases managed by county workers during 2011. They also found that workers had failed to meet mandated response times for the most serious reports of abuse in 33 percent of cases reviewed.

Since that time, the county has made sweeping changes to the program, commissioners learned Tuesday. According to Winona County Administrator Duane Hebert, at the time, staff members were ill-prepared and lacked training to deal with a swell of complex cases in 2011—the result of many parents addicted to synthetic drugs. “This is what happens when you cut training budgets and people fall behind [in relevant job training],” said Hebert. “The bottom line is that we weren’t prepared.”

Family and Children’s Services Supervisor Sharon Summers said the 2011 Minnesota Department of Human Services (DHS) report on Winona County child protection services produced a list of goals which should improve the system. She said the state identifies and requires improvement measures to just about all counties reviewed. “Counties sort of expect that,” she said.

Summers admitted that the county had a “tough time” dealing with child protection cases during the 2011 period reviewed by the DHS, and said while there may not have been a dramatic increase in the numbers of cases handled by the department, the complexity of the cases involving synthetic drugs was at times “intense.” The child protection program has continued to improve and change, she said, with regular staff meetings, collaboration with related agencies such as law enforcement, and a new intake team that will start in November to “hopefully improve the intake function.” A new employee responsible for primary screening will help ensure initial screening of reports is thorough, said Summers, who added she is working hard to oversee all aspects of child protection.

We can never expect to meet 100 percent of mandated timelines for handling child protection cases, said Summers. There are many factors, she explained, including parents who can’t be located and other situations that the “raw data doesn’t show.”

Commissioners were given a recent quarterly report that showed whether the county had met mandated timeframes for response to child protection reports and other measurements recorded by the DHS. The report contained four cases investigated over a number of months, and Summers explained that missing one deadline with such a small sample would show a low percentage of response time compliance. She gave an example of a case worker who had a completed child protection plan in place, but was unable to get the signatures of both parents to meet the state-imposed timeline for the plan to be completed. “You can see how something very simple can, statistically, look very bad,” she said.

County leaders were approached last December by a group from the county's Human Services Advisory Committee, who made a plea for more resources for the child protection program. Staff reductions and turnover in the department, they said, were putting children in the system at risk. The board consequently spent $14,500 on a consultant who examined changes in the department that were causing stress for staff members. His report concluded that things were going well. The consultant's report, however, did not include information on child protection cases nor the deficiencies listed in the state child protection review.

Last week, Commissioner Marcia Ward said she wanted to know whether child protective services had the needed resources to get the job done. “Do we have the capacity to meet the needs?” she asked.

“Can we get back to you on that?” replied Community Services Director Beth Wilms.

Hebert said after the 2011 DHS report was released, he’d had numerous conversations with staff members to determine whether there were enough employees with the knowledge and skills necessary to handle the work. What he found was one area of the department that had only one employee trained to do the job. What would happen, he asked, if that employee were to leave or retire? Additionally, said Hebert, the budget for job training was not funded for a period of time, but was restored over the last several years.

“We’d like to review that on a regular basis,” said Wilms. “The reason I don’t want to answer Commissioner Ward is because it’s a work in progress. It’s a learning process. Sometimes you need that shake-up. There were some dark days for staff. There’s a light at the end of the tunnel.”

Synthetic drugs

and child protection

The synthetic drug known as “plant food,” or mephedrone, became a major issue for law enforcement, health care facilities, and social workers in Winona County in 2011. Winona Health reported an average of six overdose cases each week in its emergency room, and 75 percent of the non-truancy child protection cases in Winona County involved a parent addicted to the new synthetic drug.

Officials found that addicted parents were often absent from the home. “Literally, almost every month in 2011 [there were] cases where children were abandoned -- lots of kids at once, and so we were really strained,” said Winona County Attorney Karin Sonneman.

Plant food addicts hallucinate and can become very paranoid. The substance is considered to be a stimulant and its effects can be similar to the drug methamphetamine—users often don’t eat for days and can become severely dehydrated.

In early 2011, an Emergency Protective Care hearing was held for four children under 10 years of age who were ultimately removed from the home due to neglect. Both parents were allegedly abusing plant food. “At one point after [the] children were removed, [the] mother [was] found running around in [a] wooded area looking for the graves of her dead children,” read a summary of the case. “Fortunately, they were alive and well, but [the] mother was obviously psychotic while under the influence.”

In another 2011 child protection case, law enforcement officials were called to an apartment on a report from a father allegedly using plant food who thought a giant marshmallow-type man was trying to get into the family’s second floor apartment. “Both parents [are] obviously high; mother looks like a concentration camp survivor, apartment is in shambles,” stated a summary of the case. “[An] officer sees [a] mound of clothing on [the] couch start to move. A two-year-old child [is] sleeping under [the] mound.” The parents did not seek to be reunited with their children after they were removed from the home, and the kids were eventually adopted. Child protection workers have reported that, unlike any drug they’ve seen, plant food often steals a parent’s will to even try to remain a part of a child’s life.

“These were very sad stories of parents literally abandoning their children,” reported Sonneman.

Summers said cases involving a parent or parents addicted to plant food have tapered off. She said use of the drug has not gone away, but there have been fewer and fewer people with children found using the substance.



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