Thursday, May 3, 2012

Child welfare in Minnesota: Investigate more cases, get more $

The previous post to this Blog discusses an impressive report from the auditing arm of the Minnesota Legislature.  The report documented the extent to which child welfare in that state is arbitrary, capricious and cruel.

The report’s authors gave ten hypothetical “vignettes” to workers who decide whether or not to accept a report alleging child abuse or neglect for investigation.  There was no unanimity on any of them and relative consensus on only three.

But the real bombshell in the report concerns an idiotic decision by the Minnesota Legislature concerning financial incentives.

I’ve written often about how financial incentives at the federal level encourage the misuse and overuse of foster care.  But in Minnesota, where child welfare systems are run by individual counties, the legislature has compounded the problem.

That’s because of the formula the legislature came up with for how the state Department of Human Services will distribute both state social services funds and federal social services aid under a program called Title 20.

Here’s how the audit report explains it:

The 2011 Legislature created the Vulnerable Children and Adults Act.   Among other things, the act specifies how DHS should distribute state and federal Title XX funds to county agencies.  Increasingly, the funds are to be distributed based on the number of vulnerable children and adults in each county.

The number to be used in the formula is the number of children who were the subject of screened-in maltreatment referrals.  Thus, agencies that cast wider nets for screening in child protection referrals could receive more funding, even if their caseloads reflect less-serious child protection cases than agencies that more selectively screen their referrals. [Emphasis added.]

So in Minnesota, if you subject children to the considerable trauma of a needless child abuse investigation, and waste the time of workers that could be better spent finding children in real danger, you get more money.


There is another oddity in Minnesota worth noting: a practice known as a “child welfare check.”  Again, from the report:

[L]aw enforcement officers may conduct “child welfare checks” on their own initiative or at the request of a child protection agency. As its name suggests, a child welfare check involves going to a family’s home and asking about or observing the welfare of a child.  A child welfare check may result in a referral to a child protection agency if the officer sees conditions or actions that constitute child maltreatment. Finally, law enforcement officers may take a child into custody for emergency placement if the child is found in conditions that endanger or could endanger his or her health or welfare.

So what, exactly, is the difference between a “child welfare check,” which “involves going to a family’s home and asking about or observing the welfare of a child”  and a child abuse investigation, which, of course involves to a family’s home and asking about or observing the welfare of a child?

Now here’s where it gets weird: Workers at county child welfare agencies in Minnesota said they typically requested such checks on cases they screened out as not rising to the level where they needed an investigation.  In still other cases, the child welfare agency itself may do a “child welfare check” on a case that was screened out as not worthy of an “investigation.”

So in parts of Minnesota, if a case does not meet even the minimal standards to be screened in, it still may well be investigated.

The report cites some examples:

Staff at one agency stated that their city police make child welfare checks on every screened-out child protection referral. Staff at another agency stated that workers go out on almost every call that is screened out in order to do preventive work. However, other agencies do not perform child welfare checks or ask law enforcement to perform these checks.

While an initial child protection referral may be screened out, follow up from the agency or the police could result in an additional referral, which may be screened in for child protection. As a result, families in similar situations ultimately may be screened in to child protection by agencies that use child welfare checks, whereas families in the jurisdiction of agencies who do not use child welfare checks regularly may remain screened out.

Several respondents to the vignette portion of our screeners survey commented that a screened-out vignette could become a screened-in child protection referral after more information was learned through child welfare checks. … Another agency stated that they would screen out a vignette involving a teenager who had allegedly been punched by her dad, but added: "We would make a ‘strong’ Child Welfare visit. … If physical discipline continues we would very likely do a child protection family assessment in the future."

Making all this even weirder is the fact that Minnesota has pioneered the use of “differential response” for less serious cases that are screened in.  Under differential response families are not investigated or “checked.”  Rather they are offered an “assessment” and voluntary help.

So to sum up, in parts of Minnesota the system works like this:

● Reports deemed most serious: child abuse investigation.

● Reports deemed less serious but still “screened in:” voluntary assessment.

● Reports that are even less serious and so are screened out entirely: “child welfare check” – which is another term for a child abuse investigation.