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Hennepin County to add 100 people to child protection staff

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Hennepin County is poised to add nearly 100 new employees to its child protection services, just days after a critical report said the safety of abused children in the county is compromised because the system is underfunded and overloaded.

The county's Health and Human Services committee gave preliminary approval Tuesday to the resolution. If approved by the full County Board next month, the measure would return the department's staffing to pre-recession levels that were in place in 2008, according to the Associated Press.

Rex Holzemer, assistant county administrator for human services, told MPR News the number of child abuse cases in the county continues to increase but staff levels haven't kept pace.

As a result, social workers have been struggling to keep up with higher caseloads and more complex family problems, he said.

Last year, Hennepin County child protection workers received 15,500 calls of suspected child abuse or neglect. That number is expected to reach nearly 18,000 this year and 21,000 in 2016, according to the Associated Press.

A report by Casey Family Programs, which was released last week, was highly critical of Hennepin County's child protection services, the Star Tribune notes. Ten percent of abused children in Hennepin County were subject to repeat abuse within a year, twice as high as the statewide rate of 5 percent.

The report said budget cuts were largely to blame for the poor performance, but also noted a "lack of trust of agency leadership" among employees surveyed, according to the Star Tribune.

The county's action is also a response to several recent extreme cases of abuse where children ended up dead.

A review by the Star Tribune found at least six children in Hennepin County who were known or had family members who were known to child protection services have died in the past two years, including Barway Collins and most recently, 2-year-old Sophia O'Neill. She died earlier this month after allegedly being kicked and stomped to death by her mother's boyfriend.

In response to another horrific case of child abuse in Pope County, last month Gov. Mark Dayton signed a law requiring changes to the way child-protection cases are handled. It includes $52 million to pay for those reforms, including additional staffing on the county level, according to the Associated Press.

In Hennepin County, the new staff would be paid for with about $5 million from the new state funding and $3.6 million in county money.

The county board will discuss the findings of the Casey report in more detail at its Thursday meeting, and is expected to take final action on the staffing proposal in early July.

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