A 2011 state review of Winona County Child Protective Services revealed statistics that some local advocates found alarming: child risk and safety were adequately assessed and managed in only 37.5 percent of cases studied; workers did not make mandated timely contact with children reported to have experienced serious abuse or neglect in 33.3 percent of cases reviewed by the state.
Members of the Winona County Human Services Advisory Committee approached the County Board in December of that year with a plea for more resources for a department that had experienced staffing cuts, attrition and other changes. Committee member Matt Vetter said the mandated 24-hour response time for workers to make contact with an allegedly abused child can mean life or death. "Do you want to see Winona on the front page of the newspaper about the death of a child?" he asked the board.
On Tuesday, Winona County Commissioners will learn more about a county "Performance Improvement Plan" approved by the Minnesota Department of Human Services. The plan aims to address and correct the problems identified in the 2011 child protection review. The meeting will be held on Tuesday, May 28 at 7 p.m. at the county office building on Main Street.
During the 2011 program review period, the Winona County Human Services Department had experienced staff cuts and the loss of its interim director, both identified in a 2012 departmental review as a variable that had caused remaining staff members stress and contributed to problems in the department. Additionally, when an employee retired or left his position, departmental leaders had to justify the need to fill the vacancy to County Administrator Duane Hebert. It was a new practice meant to help produce efficiency among the county workforce, but it also contributed to unrest, according to the 2012 department review.
The use of the synthetic drug "plant food" had also spiked during the timeframe reviewed by the state. Related child protection cases were complex, department staff reported, which contributed to the lackluster state review of county child protection services during that time.
The state 2011 review of the department showed that "risk and safety" were adequately addressed and managed in 37.5 percent of cases studied. Inconsistencies in practices, explained the report, contributed to some of the cases needing improvement, including times when infrequent visits with children, or gaps in visits, caused a problem in protection workers' ability to assess risk and safety. Overall, frequency of staff visits with children was found sufficient in 62.5 percent of cases reviewed — a percentage that does not meet state and federal child protection requirements.
For children placed outside the home, such as in foster care, group homes or with relatives, county workers met with 43.6 percent of children each month they were not in their homes between October 2010 and September 2011. "State statutes require monthly caseworker visits and federal expectations are that 90 percent of all children in placement have visits with their caseworkers every month," the state report indicated.
Since the 2011 report, the county has employed a director to oversee Human Services and Community Health departments, along with a director of social services. The county has also made changes in intake procedures and shifted more staff members to assessment duties.
In the third quarter of 2012, child protection workers met with at least 90 percent of children involved in maltreatment reports and have undergone specific training sessions to improve risk and safety assessment and management in child protection cases.
The department did not meet its performance goal for the number of children who must re-enter foster care, although there was improvement in 2012 over 2011 statistics.
According to the Minnesota Child Safety and Permanency Division, adequate supervision has been provided to child protection workers since the director positions were filled following the 2011 review. "The leadership provided by the [directors] throughout the program improvement plan phase has been instrumental in the progress made and completion of goals," states the letter.