The rush to cut child protection

The Minnesota Senate — like the Minnesota House before it — today approved cuts in child protection funding in the state. Sen. Linda Berglin (DFL-Minneapolis) tried to save funding by amending a larger bill that cuts almost $1 billion in state spending. Most of the attention has focused on its impact on state workers. Little of it has focused on whether Minnesota is adequately protecting children from abuse.

And it was clear from today’s debate that few legislators knew the answer to that question, and weren’t much interested in finding one, either. Most everyone agrees children should be protected, most everyone says government has a role in protecting the most vulnerable, and most everyone seems to agree that children fit that category. And yet, there’s the cut in the first budget bill to go before the full Senate, rather than the last.


Committee heads refused to answer questions from senators when they were asked about the cuts today.

“This is a generous state,” Rep. Geoff Michel declared. “And it will be a generous state after this bill passes.”

That’s true. Minnesota does spend a great deal of money on human services, but it’s not clear whether it spends much on child protection. And it’s not clear whether the cuts would actually lead to more children dying or being abused, as DFLers insist.


But that makes today’s vote all the more puzzling because the Senate didn’t hold any public committee hearings held a single hearing on the bill and the senator who is shepherding it said today that they weren’t getting phone calls from anyone opposing the cuts. But why would they? No mainstream media has presented any stories or, apparently, asked any questions about child protection in the two weeks since the bill surfaced, or of course, in the five working days since the measure passed the House. Compare that to the number of stories about Michele Bachmann you’ve seen floating about.


In the big scheme of the bill, the child protection element is pretty small potatoes — $19 million is smaller than $1 billion.

But that, according to the Center for Advanced Studies in Child Welfare at the University of Minnesota (which supplied the graphic), “is a 30% reduction in the state’s contribution to the Child Protection system. Already, Minnesota is amongst the lowest of all of the states in its funding of child welfare services.”


That, too, leaves unanswered questions because child protection happens at the county level. How does Minnesota compare to other states when county funding is considered? And what happens to the county funding? The Legislature is also cutting aid to counties. What priority will they put on child protection in their next budgets? Good questions, which do not have any answers.

If politicians have targeted child protection — they have — maybe there’s a reason for that. MPR’s Sasha Aslanian reported last November, for example, that child abuse cases have dropped to their lowest level since 1982.

But some people said that’s because there are fewer resources to help. “My wife is a teacher and has to call child protection services quite frequently,” one writer told us. “She is often told that they can’t do anything, or given the “what do you want us to do about it” response. Maybe the drop in requests for help is because people realize they won’t get any help, so requesting help is a waste of time.”

Minnesota keeps records of the number of cases involving abuse. But it doesn’t keep any record of the number of calls to child protection.


There is also some indication that the counties are “raising the bar” for what qualifies as child abuse, according to Mary Regan, the executive director of the Minnesota Council of Child Caring Agencies. “Maybe they figure, for example, that a three year old can be at home alone for a few hours. We heard one example of a homeless youth in a transitional living program — a young teenage mom — who had yanked the baby out of the crib and dislocated its shoulder. She was (reportedly) told ‘it doesn’t meet our criteria.'”

In Beltrami County three years ago, the county stopped paying for out of home placement for children on the Red Lake Reservation. The state stepped in. “We have a large disproportionate number of American Indian children in the child welfare system, and our outcomes for those children aren’t very good,” an assistant commissioner of the Department of Human Services told us.

What happens now? Do things get worse? How much worse? And what does worse look like? The answer to those questions never came up in today’s floor session. The questions never came up either. After the floor session, a spokesman for Senate Republicans refused to answer them.

“We were sent here to make the tough decisions,” Rep. Jeremy Miller, R-Winona, said during today’s floor debate. And he’s right. Today’s decision was tough. Nobody has any fun cutting child protection. But that’s not the question; the question is whether it was informed? Again: Maybe. Maybe not.

That we don’t know the answer to that question and dozens of others on this issue is a failure of the politicians and those of us who cover the issues they decide.

  • kwatt

    Does the bill “cut” funding for child protection or does it continue funding it at the current level? There’s a pretty substantial difference. Also, the House did not turn down such a bid to prevent the so-called cuts, there were no amendments offered to the bill on the House floor.

  • Bob Collins

    I figured you’d ask that since you asked it last week. You should also identify yourself as a Capitol staffer.

    The question you ask is — as I indicated to you last week — the question of the federal stimulus money that replaced the money that was cut at the state level. The funding is being extended at the current level, but the cut comes from not having the backfill.

    Your point is a good one, but it also mirrors the puzzling nature of today’s debate, which is a math problem not a results problem.

    I heard the word “reform” used today, but did not hear a description of what that entails. But in order to describe it, one would have to know EXACTLY what part of today’s child protection system is impacted by the cuts and would need reform. But in order to do that, one would have to know the impact of the cuts.

    Has anyone asked that question? If not, why not?

    Is child protection more than a simple mathematical equation at the Capitol? If so, where is the evidence?

  • Jamie

    It doesn’t matter if you call them cuts or non-increases, kwatt, if there have been kids falling through the cracks already.

    Bob, thank you for raising these questions. I haven’t heard ANYTHING about this aspect of the bill — including on MPR where I get about 80% of my news.

    Republicans are so fired up about cutting government spending, and most of the time the cuts affect the most vulnerable people and the average Jane. Meanwhile, they won’t raise taxes on millionaires and billionaires who just keep getting richer and richer and richer.

  • John

    Since he won’t tell you, I will. “kwatt” is Kevin Watterson, director of media service for the Minnesota House of Representatives Republican caucus. Seems like something he should disclose on his own if he’s going to comment publicly on issues like this, but Bob had to call him out on it, and I thought I’d give you his full title.

  • This doesn’t sound like an informed debate to me. I suspect that the cuts we make in the short term will end up being very expensive later–in our courts and in our prisons.

  • I blame Google! I thought Chrome was remembering my personal info.

  • Becky Weinhandl

    I vaguely remember a Minnesota where Republicans and Democrats both believed that there was an advantage in being from Minnesota. That our collective quality of life was something worth paying for. That no kid should be left to languish if their family didn’t operate with a basic interest in the welfare of their children. After a couple decades the Me-Me-Me mentality has just about ruined the idea of our social contact, our safety net and that thing that separated Minnesota from ‘average’ states. Yes, hard decisions need to be made but pro-business issues seem to be the easiest of decisions and pro-people decisions seem to be too expensive to consider. Minnesota, there is little left that makes us special any longer.

  • Jim Shapiro

    Republicans – the operational definition of cynics- know the price of everything, the value of nothing.

  • Charlie Quimby

    The MNGOP twitterers earlier this week were tweaking DFLers for a fix to the Green Acres bill last session that had some unintended consequences. The problem was the measure got passed without sufficient public input to uncover a potential problem.

    This session is going to be even worse, especially since these “fixes” are all about money and not the outcomes the public wants.

    Thanks for this, Bob.

  • Heather

    Kevin, you have a credibility problem.

  • It’s important that the Child Welfare elements of the budget cuts are getting attention.

    The Center for Advanced Studies in Child Welfare offers non-partisan information and research on policy issues that impact child welfare practice in Minnesota.

    Our Policy Blog has been tracking this proposal. You can find in-depth information, analysis and research about Child Protection funding and services here: Link

  • Bob Collins

    Invariably, this will be portrayed as a DFL vs. GOP issue. I don’t accept it as such.

    I do view it as a stark reality of the difference between running for office and holding office, not because child protection should or shouldn’t be cut, but because there’s a need for informed debate to make good decisions.

    This is almost less about child protection and more about knowing the WHAT behind the WHY of the things we do.

    Why is child protection being cut? Who doesn’t get that? The state is broke. That’s defensible, it might even be principled — although a case would have to be made based on principles.

    The harder question is WHAT is being cut. Now whether you buy into the “it’s not really a cut because the deal was actually cut in the last session” or whether you buy into the “it’s really a cut because there’s no stimulus money,” is almost irrelevant.

    At the end of the line, everyone seems to acknowledge that the effect on child protection will be tough. How tough? Good question lacking a good answer at the moment for the reasons I cited.

    There’s a lot of talk about reform. Reform what? How? Before the cut? After the cut? When? What is the desired outcome of that reform? What is being done now in child protection that we shouldn’t do any more? What aren’t we doing that we should be doing?

    Asking those questions is not a sign of weakness; it’s not a sign of being a lefty liberal; it’s not a sign of being a righty conservative.

    It’s a sign of making good, smart decisions and fully understanding — and accepting responsibility in advance for — the consequences.

  • Mark Snyder

    Thank you, Bob. For reminding us how journalism is supposed to work. And for asking the questions our state “leaders” apparently cannot be bothered with.

  • MR

    I would be curious if anyone has costs in dollar amounts of what short-term cuts will lead to in long-term costs. It may really hard to measure in this case, but it’s worth thinking about, and could/should be an important part of the discussion.

    I think of how anti-smoking advocates were able to put a big dollar figure in long-term savings for a small increase in short-term spending as a good example of that sort of useful information.

    This is leaving aside questions of what we could/should be doing with child protection, but maybe it will turn out that it is way more expensive in the long run to cut child protection than to cut other things.

  • Bob Collins

    One of the big money leaks the people at the Capitol are going to have to deal with is Moose Lake, and the cost of housing sexual predators — people who have served their prison time and are now in for “treatment.” None has ever been released and the numbers keep going.

    Quite often — though I don’t have the data — I’d guess sexual abusers and predators come from the ranks of the sexually abused. So there’s the cost of that.

    What that is, I think we’re only guessing.

  • James M. Hamilton

    It’s disturbing, though not at all surprising, to see a party that has called for zero-based budgeting completely ignore that process in its first budget bill. What we’re seeing are cuts for the sake of cutting, with little evidence of any thought going into what is to be cut and why.

  • Jim Shapiro

    Bob – Re “One of the big money leaks the people at the Capitol are going to have to deal with is Moose Lake, and the cost of housing sexual predators…”

    Without the strength of citing data, I would still bet dollars to donuts that more often than not, abusers come from the ranks of the abused.

    A tragic reality that still leaves us with how to most effectively protect society from these still dangerous offenders, regardless of the cause of their pathology.

    Thinking in efficient fiscal moves, has chemical castration been considered rather than internment?

  • Minnwhaler

    I not only remember a “Minnesota where Republicans and Democrats both believed that there was an advantage in being from Minnesota” but a Minnesota where party affiliation wasn’t an issue… only the issues were and could be discussed in a tolerant manner without having to know if the input originated from a Democrat, Republican, Independent, etc. to be deemed relevant or valuable. Spirits that be… help us all, MN is heading to Mississippi.

  • Jamie

    It’s sad that we have to discuss this in terms of the long-term costs. While that should be a part of the discussion, the more important issue is that protecting abused children is simply the right thing to do. We (the Legislature) should try to answer Bob’s questions and then pour as much money as necessary into what it takes to do the protecting — And make the millionaires and billionaires pay for it!!

    ( Tax cuts for the rich do not necessarily produce jobs. Just a reminder. :o) )

  • GregS

    “Quite often — though I don’t have the data — I’d guess sexual abusers and predators come from the ranks of the sexually abused. So there’s the cost of that. – Bob Collins”

    That is quite a stretch, even for you, Bob. Let’s try not use abused kids as a political football. It is not very becoming.

    I have an idea.

    Let’s have the legislature fund an all expenses paid week at the most expensive resort in the Caribbean for the sixty-six registered active lobbyists employed by the Teacher’s Union – Education Minnesota.

    We will only ask two things of them.

    1) Find enough money in the education budget to pay for their trip.

    2) Find enough money in the education budge to (using the DFL definition of the word) FULLY fund child protection.

    I suspect they will have the first item completed before leaving MSP. The second item might require two all expenses paid weeks in the Caribbean.

  • GregS

    “And make the millionaires and billionaires pay for it!! – Jamie”

    Naw, that is not where the REAL money is. Why not tap the Minnesota State Investment Board’s $54.9 BILLION?

    The DFL is always suggesting that we invest in our children. Well, let’s see them put their own money where their mouth is, instead of someone ele’s. Why not invest the non-taxable pension wealth of government workers in the children of Minnesota?

  • Bob Collins

    Greg, I appreciate you stopping by but you’re exhibiting the problem — you’re distracting us from the very real questions of a very particular piece of the budget with a campaign speech and a heaping helping of snark.

    The subject is is child protection and what we should do with it, and what it looks like? What are the outcomes we want from its mission which is the protection of children. And all of the other questions that have been asked which leaders should be able to answer *if* they know the answers.

    To do anything else is to allow the thread to be hijacked, and the questions to go unanswered, and for us all to lose an opportunity to intelligent discussion.

    We’re going to have a fact-based discussion — and disagreement if that’s warranted.

    We’re the people of the state of Minnesota — left, right, and middle — and we have an obligation to ask good questions and expect good answers.

    That didn’t happen at the Capitol today. It could happen here.

  • Alison

    Bob – Thank you for trying to make this a valuable conversation! This, in my mind, is what MPR is all about.

    It bears reminding to everyone reading and participating that this discussion is only valuable if you take what you learn here, and the questions that are raised, and bring them to your state representative and senator and the governor. Let them know it is important to you. Point them here, to an intelligent discussion of the issue by informed citizens.

  • Lily

    Child protection?

    The funding started to go away a while ago with federal cuts. With additional state and County cuts (which will include cuts to Childrens Mental health and also include child neglect) the effects will be exponential.

    We will be sacrificing a generation of kids some may see as “throw away” kids. These will include children with severe trauma, mental illness, chemical health, traumatic brain injuries, developmental disabilities, and other major issues.

    As a society we will pay the costs for years to come. People, a “dime” spent now will prevent large sums in years to come.

    Read the studies or talk with folks in corrections, social services, or the awesome employees of our state facilities.

    As a society we are only as good as we treat the least of us. That includes children, the elderly, the disabled, and others you may name.

    We can do better than this. This is Minnesota. I was born in this state, educated here, live here and pay taxes here. I want excellent child protection and services to support our most vulnerable citizens. My parents and my grandparents supported this too! Guess what? They were Republicans!! These are not frivolous services, they are part and parcel of our social fabric. Let’s keep that going, MN!!!!!

  • GregS

    “My parents and my grandparents supported this too! Guess what? They were Republicans!! – Lily”

    When did this become a “Republican” issue? I just read that Mayor Rybak and Governor Dayton (both Democrats) want to spend $155 million to renovate Target Center. Much of that money is to come from a state bonding bill. Isn’t this simply a matter of priority?

    Which is more important, Target Center or kids? Which is more reflective of Democratic values, the Timberworlves or kids?

    If what you say is true, that ” a “dime” spent now will prevent large sums in years to come” shouldn’t we issue bonds for that or require the State Investment Board to “invest” in child protection? Surely, we could recover our investment in the future then use the savings for capital spending and pensions.

    Sorry, but this sort of thing make me extremely cynical. This is not a difficult problem to solve and the fact that it isn’t solved leads me to believe that the DFL simply wants an issue to hammer Republicans with and couldn’t give a rip about kids —– if they did, they would shift their priorities.

  • Alison

    I’m with Greg on this. Neither side has the high ground on this issue. I’d certainly like to see more debate on cuts to child protection, and from what I have read the Democrats don’t seem to be making it their priority either.

  • Lily

    The vote was along party lines. It is pretty clear what the priorities are. My point is that the social service safety net should never be a partisan issue.

  • minnnwhale

    It became partisan when the vote went strictly along party lines. I am not pleased with either “side”. We are all part a a larger thing called humantiy. Math is easy… So it there are to be across the board cuts to state funded everything, Where are the legislators proposing a 30% cut in pay? I would find the rest much easier to digest if our elected “officials” offered up some personal sacrifice as well.

  • GregS

    “The vote was along party lines. It is pretty clear what the priorities are. Lily”

    By the time it comes to a vote, it is too late for anything but partisanship because votes are structured to leave little but a choice between lousy alternatives.

    What I would like to see is both side articulate their priorities.

    In some ways they have done this. Education has suffered less than any other part of the budget. Why? It is a solid third of the budget and a place ripe for cutting.

    Excuse me, but isn’t protecting a child from abuse a higher priority than football, basket ball, volleyball or pottery? At least in my (republican) world, the hierarchy of a child’s needs, places protection higher than education.

  • Lily

    Greg, we should meet for coffee…. I do believe that the social service safety net should supersede education…becuase the children it serves are the most disabled and the most poorly served by our educational system. This is particularly true for children with mental health disabilities. Too often, they are the disposable children in our schools….leading to higher costs in out of home placements, corrections, and services in the adult world. The current “No Child Left Behind” testing culture is especially bad for these children.

    Actually, I do vote either moderate Republican or DFL. Why? Because those are my values and because they are the folks who get the work done at the legislature.

    Dunn Brothers St. Paul and Lexington has some good brew. Peace, bro.

  • RichG

    Bob, thanks for highlighting this issue.

    The state actually does track the number of calls they get reporting child maltreatment. They report it to the federal government and it’s included in an annual Child Maltreatment report. I can get you the link if you are interested. Interestingly this is the only major stat in the process that is not included in the DHS annual report to the legislature. In round numbers the state receives calls on 56,000 children per year. They investigate about 18,000 or approx. 1/3. On average other states investigate 2/3 of the calls they receive, which fits the comment above from the husband of the teacher.

    Also, people have been calling and emailing their senators and representatives, and I know that was brought up in at least one House committee. Those contacts will continue so perhaps the Senator will acknowledge this eventually.