There’s growing acknowledgment that parents should not lose their kids because of educational neglect. We need our children to achieve educational success. We also need to preserve families at all costs, particularly those of color, who are separated in Minnesota at rates well above their white counterparts.
With the increasing disruption to education and worsening of racial disparities due to the pandemic, the 2021 Minnesota Inter-County Association report directed a legislative task force to “evaluate the cross section of educational neglect and child protection.”
Minnesota’s Olmsted County might have a solution to get children back in the classroom, without jeopardizing family stability.
Defined as the “failure to educate the child required by law,” educational neglect is defined as the failure to maintain at least 95% attendance at school in Minnesota. This translates to seven unexcused absences per school year.
Education personnel are classified as mandatory reporters and this segment of professionals make the largest number of the 11,000 daily child maltreatment reports across the U.S. In practice, reporting frequency varies. Some professionals make several attempts to engage with the child’s family before reporting to child protection while others report at the eighth unexcused absence. This discretion also plays a role in the disproportional representation of kids of color in the referral process: 60% of educational neglect reports in 2019 in Olmsted County, Minnesota, were against children of color, despite children of color representing only 35% of the overall student population.
Olmsted County, in partnership with Family Service Rochester, designed the Parents And Children Excel program (abbreviated as PACE) nearly a decade ago. PACE is a diversionary program for children and families of color reported for all education-related challenges. All children between ages 5 and 12 reported for educational neglect were referred to PACE instead of child protection.
PACE diverts kids of color from the child protection system by offering front-end case management services that wrap around the needs of the family. Services include resources and referrals to meet the family’s basic needs such as housing, medical, social and emotional needs and those related to the child’s educational well-being.
PACE is a voluntary program. Families make a choice to work with PACE. If the report to PACE was preventive in nature, as about half were, families could choose not to work with PACE and exit the process. If the report was an official educational neglect report, however, such a choice does not truly exist. Failing to work with PACE implies a mandatory intervention by child protection.
Historically, most families have a history of repetitive entry into the child welfare system. Prior to their PACE referral, nearly 70% of families had been involved with child protection between one and seven times. Only 7% of families had never had any prior referral before PACE.
I led an 18-month evaluation and financial assessment study and compared the outcomes of families who received case management services from PACE to those who were referred to the program but passed on it. Fifty-eight percent of non-participant families had become re-involved with the child welfare system within one year of exit from the PACE program, compared with only 42% of the participant PACE families. Within three years, 67% of families from the non-participant group had become re-involved with the child welfare system compared to 60% from the participant group.
Families who worked with PACE were hence more likely to resolve the challenges they were facing and did not receive a child-welfare intervention again.
Apart from the social, ethical and psychological implications of investing in prevention programs, there are huge financial benefits to county and state budgets as well.
The study estimated that the average cost of serving one child through child protection is between two and three times more expensive than the average cost of serving one child through PACE. Out-of-home care costs comprise the largest share of total child protection costs at nearly 40% of the total budget and is the largest contributor to the differential per-child cost between PACE and child protection.
This study also calculated that by diverting children of color to PACE instead of the more expensive child protection system, Olmsted County avoided nearly $2 million in cost between 2010 and 2019.
Minnesota ranks among the worst states in racial disparities among outcomes for children. Between 2016 and 2019, African American children in Olmsted County were twice as likely as white children to be reported to child protection and multiracial children were seven times as likely as white children to enter out-of-home care.
In this context, since 2010, nearly 1,000 children of color have received case management services from PACE instead of working with child protection. Deeper-end child protection services include foster care placement and court systems that often traumatize children and their families and put a significant financial strain on county systems.
The positive impact of the PACE program is also influenced by staff diversity. Unlike the county system which struggles with improving employee diversity to represent the populations they work with, 80% of the PACE staff are people of color.
This evaluation has a far-reaching impact on the de-linking of educational neglect and the child welfare system.
A high rate of absence from school can be a helpful indicator of a family in need of support. Subjecting them through a traumatizing child protection process and tearing the family apart cannot be the solution.