By John L. Fossum, Rice County Attorney
The 2015 legislature made significant changes to Minnesota’s child protection statutes. Governor Dayton created a child protection task force in the wake of the heartbreaking death of 4 year old in Pope County who was murdered by his stepmother. At least 15 instances of maltreatment had been reported to Pope County, including when he had bite marks on his face and bruises. Pope County investigated only one of those reports.
The Governor’s task force recommended more than 100 reforms to improve reaction to reports, many of which were acted on by the legislature, and the Minnesota Department of Human Services. Changes included more social workers statewide, stricter reporting and investigation requirements along with rule and legislative changes. Among the functional changes, investigating social workers are no longer prohibited from reviewing prior reports involving the same subjects to aid in their investigation.
These legislative changes have had real world effects in Rice County, the state funded an additional 5 social workers to deal with child protection cases. Although Social Services received extra state funding to handle the increase in work, the courts and other agencies have not seen additional funding.
My office has seen a significant increase in child protection cases in the last year. Child protection cases, known by the acronym ChIPS, (Children In need of Protection or Services) have increased significantly in Rice County in the last year. In 2013 55 ChIPS cases were filed in Rice County, in 2014, 57 cases were filed, in 2015, those numbers jumped to 100 new cases.
The ultimate goal of ChIPS cases is to reunite the parents and children and develop a plan where the best interests of the children are protected, but they stay with their families. In some cases that is not possible and the county has an obligation to move to a termination of parental rights or to find a permanent placement for the children, preferably within the family. Unfortunately, we have seen an increase in those cases in Rice County as well, in 2013, 5 termination or permanent placement cases were brought to court, in 2014, 9, and in 2015, there were 20 termination of parental rights or permanent placement cases filed in Rice County. ChIPS and termination cases are time consuming and emotionally draining.
These changes are the result of many complex family problems some of which coincide with legislative and rule changes. This significant caseload increase creates a strain on the courts, our office, law enforcement, and on county resources generally. All participants are straining to keep up with the work, and, most importantly, to safeguard the children.
As the legislature prepares to convene, we hope they will remember to offer some additional funding to meet the challenges in the law. We all want to see a system that works to protect children, seeks their best interests and reunites them with their families whenever possible and as soon as possible. Additional social workers helped to address the beginning of the process, but there is a need to be sure the whole system can endure the burden created by the legislative changes.