Many rural Minnesota counties struggling to respond quickly to child abuse allegations

At times, rural law enforcement personnel are called into service at nights and on weekends to screen reported child abuse cases. They often are not trained to do that and may be forced to juggle that with other duties ranging from responding to traffic accidents to investigating crimes.

“A deputy sheriff does not have that full range of resources,” Rep. Ron Kresha, R-Little Falls, said Tuesday after he co-chaired a meeting updating lawmakers on improvements in the Minnesota child protection system.

The task force heard that about half of Minnesota’s 87 counties do not have the ability to ensure a trained child protection worker takes an abuse case within 24 hours.

“It is best for our kids to have that 24-hour service,” said Carole Wilcox of the Human Services Department.

Lawmakers suggested that rural counties look into ways to keep trained social workers on call at all times, perhaps by working with neighboring counties.

New rules were expected to be in place Jan. 1 requiring counties to have that capability, but social workers said they will not be ready.

“It is not unreasonable for the counties to ask for more time,” said Kathy Sheran, D-Mankato, the other leader of the Legislative Task Force on Child Protection.

Sheran said extra money the Legislature approved for child protection earlier this year was supposed to go to around-the-clock protection, but Wilcox told the task force that it is needed, instead, just to fund investigating an increasing number of abuse reports.

State law requires that the initial decision about whether to proceed with a child abuse case to come within 24 hours of when it is first reported. Many rural counties do not have social workers available at nights and on weekends.

“There are disparities about what happens in counties in rural Minnesota and what happens in the metro,” Kresha said.

Added Sheran: “We don’t know if this has failed to protect a child on the weekend.”

Sheran and others on the task force said that rural and urban children need to be treated the same.

New guidelines governing the child protection process are due out Oct. 1 after public comments are heard.

Sheran said all child abuse investigations should begin with child protection professionals, and someone must available 24 hours a day, seven days a week in every county.

“There is a wide disparity throughout the state,” Rep. Tom Anzelc, D-Balsam Township.

Rep. Joe Mullery, D-Minneapolis, complained about Wilcox’s request for a year to figure out how to make response the same across the state. It needs to be implemented sooner, he said.

“I see the people in St. Paul trying to wish themselves out of a problem,” Anzelc said about the delay.

The 2015 state Legislature changed the law to require that an abused child’s needs take precedence over the previous requirement to keep families together.

The changes came after 3-year-old Eric Dean of Pope County died a couple of years after multiple reports that he had been abused.

This year’s new law was written to speed investigation into abuse claims and to make sure cases like Eric’s do not fall through the cracks.