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Agencies work together to combat child maltreatment

There are successes, but in reality there are more heartbreaking stories when it comes to child abuse. A child is abused every 10 seconds in the United States. Closer to home, the number of child protection cases in Crow Wing County is on the ris...

Illustration by Jan Finger
Brainerd Dispatch Illustration by Jan Finger

There are successes, but in reality there are more heartbreaking stories when it comes to child abuse.

A child is abused every 10 seconds in the United States. Closer to home, the number of child protection cases in Crow Wing County is on the rise.

Child abuse is not as it was 20 years ago, according to members of the Crow Wing County Child Protection Team. It's not just about a child being physically hit or having bruises. It's about neglect, emotional abuse, mental illnesses and can be caused by parents using drugs, controlled substances or alcohol or going through divorce.

"In our community, we see a lot of child neglect coupled with meth and drug use," Crow Wing County Assistant Attorney Janine LePage said. "Parents are actively using and not providing care for their children and the kids are suffering from neglect. Parents are using and leaving their kids alone or with whomever will take them and they are not the best people. Kids are ingesting the meth their parents are smoking and the kids also are testing positive."

LePage said when she started with the county attorney's office in 1996 the child maltreatment cases revolved around dirty houses with animal feces or hoarders. There were cases involving alcohol and sexual abuse. Now a majority of the cases are drug related.

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Neglect, emotional and physical abuse and other child maltreatment can affect children 18 years old and younger for their entire lives, according to an Adverse Childhood Experience study done in 2011 by the Minnesota Department of Health. In Minnesota, the study found 28 percent of children were emotionally abused; 24 percent were living with a problem drinker; 21 percent of the children's parents were divorced or separated; 17 percent had a mental illness in the household; and 16 percent of the children were physically abused.

The state compiled data on the effects of adverse childhood experiences on the lifelong health and well-being of adults in Minnesota. For two decades, research by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and other states have repeatedly demonstrated the powerful impact of ACEs on health, behavior and social problems. The research found the ACEs caused toxic levels of stress or trauma before age 18 and are linked to poor physical and mental health, chronic disease, lower educational achievement, lower economic status and impaired social success in adulthood, the report said.

And the state study mirrors what is happening in Crow Wing County. Social services had 101 child protection cases in 2005; 271 in 2010; 755 in 2013; 1,068 in 2014; and 1,033 so far this year.

Lynda Erickson, Crow Wing County Family Services supervisor, said it may appear there was a big jump in the number of child maltreatment cases, but the increases are not necessarily accurate. She said the numbers in 2005 and 2010 reflect data entry procedures that were not the same as in recent years.

Community Services Director Kara Terry said overall she believes the county has not seen more cases, but has seen more difficult, challenging cases. Terry said the difficult cases take longer to close.

"We are seeing a lot of families involved in meth which is really difficult to get ahead," Terry said of the cases. "We are also seeing a lot of younger kids with higher needs and more difficult behavior. Because of the kids' age they are harder to place. We are working on how to get ahead with the behavior issues with the kids."

Terry said the county is working on more creative staffing to address all the cases. In 2010, there were 12 social workers in the county who worked in child protection. Today there are 16. Three of the 16 were just hired thanks to new state funding approved in the Legislature as recommended by Gov. Mark Dayton's Task Force on the Protection of Children.

Terry said having the additional three staff has been helpful.

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"We now have these lead workers which allows us the flexibility in how we are getting the work done," Terry said. "We have been implementing a family preservation program which deals with the less intense cases and gives us more creative ways to go into a home ... and getting them on the right track."

Terry said the county also implemented a "Growing Great Kids" program, which is an evidence based curriculum. Terry said it is a preventive program that starts with the moms and babies and staff get into their homes earlier to help them.

LePage, Crow Wing County Collaborative Service Team coordinator Becky Stadem of the Paul Bunyan Education Coop and other team members discussed the county cases and how the system works.

LePage focuses only on court-ordered child protection cases. On average she works on 125-130 cases a year and as of Thursday she had 137 open cases. Child maltreatment cases she works on include those dealing with terminating parental rights, truancy issues and children in long-term care.

When community services receives a child maltreatment report, caseworkers review or screen the case to determine how it meets legal criteria for further assessment or investigation. The facts and severity of the case will direct the investigation on when the child must be seen, LePage said. For the severe cases, social workers are required to see the child within 24 hours. In less severe cases the child must be seen in five days.

Not all child maltreatment cases are investigated. In less serious cases, they are screened as a family assessment, which means the caseworker works with the family to remedy the situation. In these cases, the child must be seen in five days.

Then there are cases that do not meet the state guidelines on child maltreatment. Stadem said, in these instances, the county offers families resources such as help from Family Services Collaborative Workers, the Family Preservation Program, the Parent Support Outreach Program, the Growing Great Kids Program, an Intensive In-Home program, respite services and other Bridges of Hope offerings, public health and a variety of community partner referrals and linkages.

Baxter Police Chief Jim Exsted, a child protection team member, said when a child maltreatment report comes in the welfare of the child is always considered first. When officers respond to a child maltreatment call, they will determine whether they need to put an emergency hold on the child or if they believe the child is safe. Exsted said law enforcement works with social services on the cases and generally can be the first agency to respond to the incident, especially on weekends and after hours when the social services offices are closed.

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"It's a complicated process," LePage said. Social services screening team meets every morning to assess the reports from the last 24 hours. "If there is a case that is really urgent we will get someone out there (to the child's home) right away and start the investigation.

"Then there are the cases that mandate a court action right away."

Cases also can be "voluntary" meaning the family is cooperating with social services to do the things they need to do to remedy the situation, such as going to treatment if they are a drug user and/or going to a parenting class.

The protection team said the amount of time spent on the case varies. LePage said if the child is living at the home, the case can stay open for a long time. Then there are time limits on the cases filed in court, if the child is in out-of-home-placement. LePage said a common case is where a child is born and is tested positive for methamphetamine and is placed in foster care. LePage said the parents have no more than 12 months to try to rectify the conditions that led to the child's placement before the state and federal law require permanent placement of the child. The court will monitor the family in six months to see if they are working on bettering their conditions. If the parent is not working on their conditions, they could lose their child after a half year.

In the last several years, LePage said it appears the reunification rates of bringing the child back home is lower than in the past.

"These kids are not going home," LePage said, "I don't know what the shift is or if meth has just really taken hold of people, but we are really struggling to get parents to correct conditions to get their kids home."

The child protection team members said they get frustrated working on cases, as they want families to do well to bring their children home and they want the children to be safe and happy. However, there are only so many resources and staff to help families-and the parents have to want to get help.

The team said drugs are not the only factor in child maltreatment cases, but mental illnesses and poverty also play large roles. However, the team said even though there are some commonalities between the cases, each case is different. LePage said every case requires unique assessment to determine how the county and available services can help the family.

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Stadem said many families with child maltreatment cases do not ask for the life they were dealt, referring to the type of childhood the parent had.

"They are people and this is their lives," Stadem said. "Not all of them asked for the life they have ... but these are the realities."

Stadem said there are several things the public can do to help prevent child abuse. She said people can get to know their neighbors and be aware of the family to make sure they are OK. People also could apply to have a Kinship Partner to help out a child.

Exsted said developing positive relationships with children could help them, too, if the child is going through a tough time. People also could help by becoming a foster care parent.

JENNIFER STOCKINGER may be reached at jennifer.stockinger@brainerddispatch.com or 218-855-5851. Follow me at www.twitter.com/jennewsgirl on Twitter.

SIDEBAR/data

Total number of child protection cases in Crow Wing County:

Year Total cases Cases Screened Screened Out

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2005 101 99 3

2010 271 172 99

2013 755 175 580

2014 1,068 240 828

2015 1,033 225 808

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