County response improves after year of state oversight
Reports of child neglect and abuse in Winona County rose 45 percent in the first quarter of 2013, and child protection workers are noting another increase in the number of parents who are addicted to synthetic drugs such as "plant food."
Winona County Board members heard a report last week on county child protective services, and although the performance of the county's program has improved, the increase in child neglect and abuse reports drew concern from board members.
The county received 205 child welfare and child protective services complaints or reports in the first quarter of 2012. The first quarter of 2013 yielded 293 such reports, a trend that County Social Work Supervisor Sharon Summers said she will continue to monitor.
The Minnesota Department of Human Services reviewed the county child protection program in 2011. The report showed that the county had failed to meet minimum state and federal child protection requirements in areas such as social worker response times for making contact with children in the most serious cases, as well as timely social worker visits with children placed outside of their homes. According to the state report, the county properly assessed and managed child risk and safety in only 37.5 percent of cases studied.
In response to the state review, the county developed a "Program Improvement Plan" with the state to help correct the deficiencies in the county service, then implemented the plan in April 2012. The county made quarterly reports to the state, which showed child protective services were making strides in mandated response times and risk and safety management.
Summers, who took the job following the poor 2011 state review, reported that staff members completed formal training in child risk and safety management, and that case worker contact with children has improved under the plan. The department reorganized the way it handles and responds to child abuse and neglect complaints, and now has four full-time employees who handle the intake of reports and follow through with assessments and investigations.
The spike in reports of child neglect and abuse, however, drew concern from County Board members. Not only did the reports increase, but also the cases in which county workers either investigated or assessed a family for the instance of neglect or abuse rose from 105 in the first quarter of 2012 to 143 in the first quarter of 2013.
"Those are huge increases," remarked County Board member Jim Pomeroy, who said that the increase in child abuse mandated reporter training over the last year could have contributed to additional reports, but said the numbers seemed to suggest a troubling trend.
Summers told the board that although the economy has improved over the last several years, sometimes it can take the lowest-income families longer to rebound, especially if a family experiences a loss of housing. Drug and alcohol abuse, along with domestic abuse, can also be chronic challenges for families with children.
Use of synthetic drugs such as "plant food" began to be noticed in the Winona area in 2011, and complex addiction cases overwhelmed law enforcement and child protection workers. In the summer of 2011, Winona Health reported an average of six overdose cases per week in the emergency room. County child protection workers investigated at least 24 cases of children living with addicted parents, and were forced to remove at least 90 percent of those children from their homes.
While child abuse or neglect complaints related to parents addicted to the synthetic drug had slowed since that time, Summers said, social workers are now seeing a "new batch" of users, and the strong addiction is again affecting county families.
One of the problems with child protective services that was identified by an outside consultant following the 2011 report was a lack of supervision. Staff members were working without a department head or social work director, and the department experienced employee turnover. Last week, Commissioner Steve Jacob asked Summers if the department had the resources it needed to protect children.
Summers reported that the supervisory positions had been filled since the 2011 review, and that the department was managing its case load. However, Summers said that she would continue to monitor the spike in child abuse and neglect complaints, adding that if the trend continued, department resources may need to be reevaluated.
Also included in the report presented to the board were figures related to adult protection cases, including reports of cases of abuse, neglect or financial crimes against vulnerable adults. She said there have been significant increases in reports of financial exploitation of vulnerable adults, some of which stem from family members' tapping into an aging relative's estate. She said those cases can be time-consuming, requiring case workers to investigate finances and work closely with law enforcement.