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Child protection advocates balance intervention with reasonable deliberation

Marcus calls his local child protection agency with concerns regarding his four-year-old son Andrew. Marcus says friends have told him that Andrew's mother, Amber, is drunk every day to the point of throwing up and has withdrawal tremors from alcohol.

Marcus reports that he and Amber are not together, but share custody of Andrew. He says Amber's friends brought Andrew to him the other day and told him Amber was too drunk to take care of Andrew.

Marcus says Andrew saw him smoking a cigarette the other day and said that his mom and her friends smoke a different kind of cigarette which his mom calls her "medicine." Marcus believes that this is marijuana.

Marcus says he is caring for Andrew beyond what is ordered in the custody agreement because Marcus won't give Andrew to Amber when she is drunk.

A search of social services records shows a child protection report made by Amber's cousin four years ago alleging that Amber was drinking while pregnant.

What will the child protection agency do with this report? If there is a child protection response, what will it be? If there is no response, why is that the case?

When a child protection agency receives a report of maltreatment of a child, the agency must decide how to respond to the report. This initial decision is referred to as "screening."

During the 2011 legislative session, legislators heard concerns about this screening process. One of the concerns was that child protection agencies in Minnesota might be screening out too many reports of child maltreatment. In response to these concerns, the Office of the Legislative Auditor was directed to study and evaluate child protection screening. The report of that evaluation was released Feb. 21 and is available online at the Minnesota Office of the Legislative Auditor web- site: www.auditor.leg.state.

The report explains "child protection screening determines whether children and their families will have access to child protection services." The report further explains that the screening decision is important in that an incorrect decision could result in "unnecessary intervention in a family or the failure to protect a child who is being maltreated." 

The report concludes that, overall, child protection agencies make screening decisions in a reasonable and deliberative manner. The report also found, however, that child protection agencies across Minnesota vary considerably regarding screening decisions and that some agencies may have a greater propensity than others to screen in or screen out referrals.

One concern noted in the report is that children's access to protection services might depend on where they live.

In the study, child protection agencies were asked to "screen" a number of hypothetical child maltreatment reports, including the scenario discussed above with Amber. Regarding the above scenario, the responding agencies were almost evenly split, with 47 percent of the agencies screening in the report and 53 percent of the agencies screening the report out.

Why the variation? One reason might be the clarity of the law. Minnesota's laws regarding child protection are somewhat vague. Reasonable people can read the same law and interpret it differently. Child protection agencies also have different philosophies and approaches to protecting maltreated children.

The work of child protection is difficult, complex and very important. Every report of child maltreatment should receive careful consideration. Some of those reports identify children who need immediate protection. Other reports are unfounded.

The screening decision is where the rubber meets the road, so to speak, and where the priorities and policies of the child protection agency are implemented.

The ramifications of an erroneous screening decision are obvious. A report of maltreatment might be the only opportunity we ever have to protect an abused child. At the other end of the spectrum, following up on an unfounded report could lead to unnecessary intervention in a family and do more harm than good.

Child protection screening could be one of the most important decisions made by county government. We all have a vested interest in the children of our community and we also want our local resources to be efficiently and effectively utilized.

We need to make good screening decisions.

As always, remember it is your court.

Paul Rasmussen is a District Court Judge in the Ninth Judicial District. He is chambered in Clearwater County and works primarily in Clearwater and Hubbard counties.