Op Ed: Putting families first will help keep children safe

Published 7:46 am Wednesday, April 11, 2018

By Jim Koppel

Assistant Commissioner, Minnesota Department of Human Services

As more Minnesota families struggle with trauma, poverty, chemical dependency and the difficulties of daily life, children often suffer the consequences. Our child protection data paints an alarming picture.

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In just the past few years, the number of child abuse and neglect reports assessed and investigated is up by 25 percent, and drugs and alcohol are often at the heart of the problem. Parents’ substance abuse was the most common primary reason for children being placed in foster care in 2016, surpassing neglect for the first time ever. And the number of babies allegedly exposed to drugs prenatally has more than doubled from 2012 to 2016.

There is some hope and help on the way. Minnesota has undertaken a variety of strategies to make sure children are safe. We continue to implement the changes recommended by the Governor’s Task Force on the Protection of Children published in March 2015, with short- and long-term steps for improving the child protection system.

Those efforts will be bolstered by the federal Family First Prevention Services Act, recently signed into law. Family First will provide child welfare agencies with the tools needed to help children and families in crisis, including families struggling with the opioid epidemic sweeping across Minnesota and the rest of the country.

This bipartisan legislation will help keep more children safely with their families so they can avoid the often traumatic experience of entering foster care. When children must enter foster care, this act helps ensure they are placed in the least restrictive, most family-like foster care settings to meet their special needs.

This new law shifts funding and provides more flexibility to struggling and overburdened child welfare agencies by providing the tools needed to help children and families in crisis, including families struggling with opioids. Beginning in Fiscal Year 2020, child welfare agencies can use federal funds to support evidence-based prevention efforts for mental health and substance abuse prevention and treatment services; in-home services for children who are at imminent risk of entering foster care, and pregnant or parenting teens.

States have flexibility in defining the safety services they provide to children and families, and how they will ensure quality residential treatment for children with emotional and behavioral needs.

I’m particularly excited about the help this new law will provide to address the opioid crisis. The law reauthorizes and updates funding to provide evidence-based services to prevent child maltreatment related to substance abuse due to opioids and other drugs.

This is certainly not all that needs to be done. We must tackle child abuse and neglect from many angles. We must continue to work with our county and tribal partners to determine what we can do differently to better serve struggling families. We must count on teachers, neighbors and communities to support struggling families, offer to help where they can, and let us know when children are being harmed. And then we must respond swiftly and appropriately.

The federal Family First Prevention Services Act is another tool that offers help and hope for families. We know the more we can support families and prevent their involvement in the child protection system on the front end, the better families and children — and we as a society — will be.