FLIP THE SYSTEM: Hennepin Co. Child Protection reforms a $122M system

- Chelsie Powe knows people will judge her. By now, she is used to it.

“I didn’t want any of this to happen. It’s a nightmare for me that I relive over and over again when they pull me into court and say that I’m a monster for this,” she said.

On Dec. 9, 2014 Brooklyn Park Police arrived on a call of a baby not breathing. 

Her son, Kazerion, had been fussing in his crib, when his father, Reggie Harper picked him up by the neck and punched him five times in the stomach. He broke the boy's ribs, ruptured his lungs and sliced his liver.  

Kazerion died at the scene, just a few weeks shy of his second birthday.  

Harper was convicted of second-degree murder. Powe also paid a price.

Hennepin County Child Protection took her two other children, terminated her parental rights and claimed she failed to protect Kazerion.  

"It hurt, I didn’t do this. He did this. And I tried to do everything I could to protect my children,” she said.

The family was on Hennepin County Child Protection's radar before the boy's death, with a long paper trail.

Harper had hit Kazerion in the face when he was only five months old. At the time, the couple was living in Michigan, but child protection authorities in Minnesota were notified when the couple moved back to Minnesota.       

Kazerion and a brother were placed in foster care.  

The boys were returned with one important condition: Powe was to have no contact with Harper. There was even an order for protection against him at the time of Kazerion's murder.

When asked if she knew Harper was not supposed to be with her, she responded: "Yes, I did."

"I feared him," she continued. "He was getting mail there from Hennepin County, so they knew he was already there.”

BRIGHT SPOT IN SYSTEM

For Brooklyn Park’s police chief Craig Enevoldsen, the case was a wakeup call.  

“Until probably until three or four years ago, I didn’t even know there was such a thing as a Hennepin County Child Safety Plan," he said.

Police didn’t know there was an active child protection case, until it was too late.

“Someone was actually supposed to be prevented from being in that home, and we had been there in the past. Had we known that information, we would have removed that individual from the home and prevented what occurred." Enevoldsen said. "We don’t know, but it’s certainly possible.”

As part of a pilot program, Brooklyn Park Police now track 40 households with high-risk child protection cases.  

When officers respond to a call at one of those addresses, they get child protection information on their squad’s computer terminal, telling them who is prohibited from the home and other conditions. 

“They kind of put a flag in our system to where if a call is made to that address, the responding officer will be notified they have on-going issue and a child safety plan with child protection,” said Ivy Villani, a Hennepin County Child Protection Case Worker.

The information is shared with social workers based inside the Brooklyn Park Police Department, who work closely with detectives.  

Detective Dawn Orgon gets about 300-child abuse reports a year.  

"As soon as you leave a mark, then chances are I’m going to be involved and child protection’s going to be involved,” said Orgon.

However, not all the cases are criminal; some are cultural.  

“What you did in the country you came from may not be acceptable here,” she said. 

According to critics, what is happening in Brooklyn Park is a bright spot in an otherwise overwhelmed system. 

"CAN'T BUY OUR WAY OUT OF THIS" 

In Hennepin County alone, last year there were 22,000 maltreatment cases, a 96 percent increase in the last eight years.  

During the same period, prosecutors have seen a 79 percent increase in children in need of protective services, what is known as CHIPS cases.  

In the court system, there are 553 children currently without a court appointed advocate, known as a Guardian Ad Litem.  

Hennepin County is also the target of a proposed class action lawsuit, claiming child protection has “…devolved into a confusing, underfunded and erratic system, that inflicts harm on the children it serves…”

Meanwhile, Hennepin County spends $122 million every year responding to child abuse cases. 

“We need a different system because we can’t buy our way out of this,” said Jennifer DeCubellis, the Deputy County Administrator for Health and Human Services for Hennepin County.

She is on a mission to overhaul child protection, what she calls, "flipping the system.”  

"We’re saying the system is broken. We know it's not working for families," she said. "The difference between us and others nationally, a lot of other places are not doing anything to change it, they are just treading water, we’re flipping the system,”

So what does that mean?

“We know who high-risk families are. We know if a new mom is struggling with addiction or there is mental health in the family, or there is income crisis, or unstable housing or teen parenting. We want to shrink who is getting into that system over time by investing upstream and doing interventions in our community that sets families up for success versus taking families apart,” DeCubellis explained.

That means early intervention at schools and hospitals and doing better at providing housing, income and food support for families in need.

NEW COMMAND CENTER

It also meant getting a onetime injection of $26 million from the Hennepin County Board.  

Some of the money went to a 24-7 Child Protection Command Center. It acts as a kind of traffic control for kids in need of protection, with supervisors available to shepherd cases.    

It also meant hiring 350 new child protection workers in the last four years, doubling the work force. 

CHILD PROTECTION WORKER'S PERSPECTIVE

Lauri Cutinella was one of those new hires; she lasted less than a year and had a caseload of 19 families.  

“They chew you up and spit you out," she said. "I always found it real alarming not to reach a supervisor."

She said she hardly ever saw a supervisor while she was working.

“We are supposed to have a supervisory meeting every week for one hour, and mine was constantly canceled,” she added.

DeCubellis admits there were issues in the early stages with the massive amount of new hires. However, she said turnover among caseworkers has gone from 23 percent to 10 percent.  

“We didn’t have supervisors with enough bandwidth for the kind of coaching that new staff needed,” she said.

She admits the work is not for everyone.

"There is hope that the system is starting to turn around. Some people will hold on through this time of change. Others it will not be the right place for and we need to respect that on both sides,” DeCubellis concluded.

Not everyone has a choice to be in the system. 

BLAMES HERSELF

In March, Chelsie Powe gave birth to her fourth child, with a different father, and child protection removed that child from the home as well.

She said she believes she made one mistake and her children are still paying for it. 

“Blame myself that I even met the man, that I should’ve gotten out a long time ago but I was scared,” Powe said.

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