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Child abuse/neglect cases spike again (07/16/2014)
By Chris Rogers
Child abuse and/or neglect reports in Winona County

2013: 786

2012: 664

2011: 929

2010: 573

2009: 141

When young children say that their parents hit them or have suspicious bruises, adults are supposed to take it seriously and tell someone. Authorities are supposed to investigate — and fast. State rules require social workers to investigate reports of substantial child endangerment —serious assault, sexual abuse, and abandonment — within 24 hours. In 2009, Winona County social workers met that deadline in just 42 percent of cases.

Now, with added staff and streamlined systems, the county has drastically improved. Last year, social workers investigated 81.5 percent of all serious reports within 24 hours and, as of March 31, had responded to every single report on time during this year. Response times for investigating less serious reports also improved, with county workers meeting five-day deadlines 100 percent of the time in 2013, up from 70 percent in 2008.

The bad news is that reports have increased. The county received 786 child protection calls in 2013, an 18 percent rise from 2012. This year is on track to be even worse. The county received 175 calls for child protection in the first quarter of 2014, 31 percent higher than the same time last year.

Social Services leaders hope that a rise in reporting is part of the uptick, but they acknowledge that in the last two years, a tragic rise in child neglect and abuse has accompanied a resurgence in synthetic drug abuse in Winona.

Starting in 2010 and peaking in 2011, the first wave of plant food abuse shocked Winona. From law enforcement to emergency rooms, local services were inundated with users of the strange and devastating new drugs. Social workers, too, felt the surge. In two years, the number of child protection calls increased by 550 percent. A state report at the time found that county workers managed children's risk appropriately in only 37.5 percent of cases. After citizens and board members pressed the issue, the county increased training and staffing.

The rapid rise of synthetic drugs jarred all kinds of services from the courts to mental health providers, County Social Services Supervisor Sharon Summers said. Child protection workers responded to calls from concerned neighbors about parents who left their children alone during long benders, ignored their children's worsening medical problems while strung out on synthetic drugs, and raised them in homes immersed in the sale and use of hard drugs.

After 2011, "we had gotten through this bubble of addicted parents and things kind of dropped off a little bit, but we're seeing the upswing again," said Summers, explaining that there has been a second wave of parents newly addicted to "plant food" whose children are the subjects of child protection complaints.

Summer's department gets a lot of reports of neglect involving plant food-addicted parents. Reports describe "children not being supervised because the parent is incoherent or leaving the child to go do their drug activity," she said. As the addictions worsen, parents start bringing the drugs home. Child protection problems "rapidly escalate" from there, she said. "Most of the time parents love their children; they don't want to hurt their children, but they're so addicted that they can't even see [their children's needs] anymore. Some of them, the addiction is so powerful where they just walk away [from their children]. We can't find them," she continued.

Unfortunately, those parents are often uncooperative with social workers' attempts to help and preserve the family.

"We end up in court and often times those children are placed with a relative or placed in foster care. We aren't having much success engaging with the families," Summer said. Whether children are place with relatives or in foster care, the county pays for the children's out-of-home placement costs. The county bills parents for some of those expenses and the state is supposed to partially reimburse the county, but parents often cannot pay and the state has been sluggish on reimbursing the county, falling months behind. The placements can cost $500 a day or more. As of last Wednesday, the county had spent $698,271 on out-of-home placements this year alone.

The county's statistics are still low in other areas. Last year, 52 percent of children in out-of-home placements received physical exams, behind the state's goal of 70 percent and the state average of 70.5 percent. Last year, 40 percent of children in the Winona County child protection system received mental health screenings. The state goal is 60 percent. Summers said that uncooperative parents make it harder to make sure that children are screened for mental and physical health, but that her department has started doing more "hand holding" to ensure parents make appointments. 


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