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Keeping kids safe is a growing challenge

Imagine your job is a child protection worker. Your goal, and the very reason you pursued this often heartbreaking and yet rewarding career, is to help keep children safe. But suddenly your work load has gotten so big — the number of reports of children being abused or neglected has risen dramatically — you're in constant responding mode with the number and complexity of cases you have, unable to spend nearly the time you'd like to help families make meaningful changes. At the same time, you now must spend more time than ever filling out increasing amounts of paperwork required by the state, which further cuts into the time you could be engaging with families and helping kids.

Meanwhile, each time a case you've investigated rises to the level that law enforcement or the courts remove children from their homes, your co-workers are challenged to find foster home to care for the child for what's becoming a longer period of time until they can be safely reunited with their family.

What is happening?

We are seeing a sharp increase in drug use, especially opioids such as heroin and prescription painkillers. We're also seeing more cases involving mental health issues, homelessness and incarceration. We are seeing more families coping with the stress of poverty and trauma. And in the middle of it all are the most innocent of victims: children.

From January to June of this year, St. Louis County Child Protection opened for assessment 1,115 reports of possible child maltreatment. That's on track to be a 45-percent increase compared to just two years ago. And keep in mind, hundreds of additional reports come in and are screened out as not meeting state guidelines.

It's not a pretty picture. It's also not something we can ignore.

St. Louis County Public Health and Human Services (PHHS) is required by the state to investigate these cases. While the state enacts numerous guidelines and requirements we must follow, it hasn't provided adequate funding to cover the staffing costs to do this very important work. The State of Minnesota also doesn't adequately share in the cost of out of home placements, placing the bulk of a $13 million and growing burden on property taxpayers. More than 10 percent of the St. Louis County property tax levy now goes to cover the costs of out of home placements and child protection staff.

The County Board, administration and PHHS are all working to find innovative ways to meet the growing need of our county's youngest citizens, while respecting the cost impact to taxpayers. We've restructured staff. We hired 10 more child protection workers last year with funding from the legislature. But the need, and the resulting caseloads for social workers, continues to spike.

This month, the County Board approved hiring an additional 16 social workers and four supervisors to work in child protection services. These positions will do the reactive work of investigating reports of maltreatment in a timely manner, as well as the proactive work of helping at-risk families before their situation gets to the point of children having to be removed to ensure their safety. The added staff will improve caseloads that are currently about 50 percent over state Child Protection Task Force guidelines and also prioritize increasing documentation requirements that earn the county state and federal dollars for some of the ongoing child protection work.

As we move forward, the work and focus is threefold. We will continue to investigate the increasing reports of children being abused and neglected and engage with families and others to ensure their children's safety. PHHS also continues to face the challenges — and costs — of finding foster homes to provide a nurturing place for these kids to live until the problems at home are sorted out and they can be safely reunited with their parent(s). Lastly, the county is looking at new ways to address the underlying problems — heroin abuse and opioid addiction, mental health issues and poverty — that these families are facing.

These are complex problems with no easy solutions. We are committed to protecting the children of our county. There is no alternative.

Holly Church is the director of the St. Louis County Children and Family Services Division.