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Prolonged hard economic times have stressed some families to the breaking point, and Becker County child protection workers are busier than ever trying to keep kids safe.

"There's been a marked upwards trend in the child protection caseload," said Donna Richgels, child protection supervisor for Becker County Human Services.

"We're also seeing a resurgence of meth use in the county," she told the Becker County Board Tuesday.

Newcomers in trouble

There has always been a transient population moving into Becker County from other counties in Minnesota, but now child protection workers are "seeing a lot of families from other states," which often complicates and slows down the investigation process.

"We've managed to hold the line on placements," Richgels said, but those children being placed often have suffered "much more severe abuse than we've seen before," she added.

That includes physical abuse to the point of being nearly life threatening as well as sexual abuse, she said.

"There are too many investigations for the number of people we have to investigate," she said. If a child is in a life-threatening situation, action needs to be taken immediately and that can take a toll on a child abuse investigator's family life.

'A really tough job'

"My workers are carrying enormous amounts of comp time -- they work an enormous number of hours, they're working evenings and weekends at the drop of a hat, without their families knowing they aren't coming home tonight," Richgels said.

It's a difficult enough job anyway, with an average turnover rate of about three years for child abuse investigators in Minnesota, she continued.

The child protection team in Becker County is more seasoned and Richgels is doing her best to keep the team together.

"I believe we need to make these jobs manageable for people to make it a career," she said. "It's not OK to chew them up and spit them out. It's a really, really tough job. I've made a commitment make it work for them. Becker County is lucky you have a very professional staff here."

Workers know their stuff

Richgels is encouraged by the progress her staff has made with families it has worked with on the long term. Most of the kids being placed are not from those families, she said.

"Our placements to the juvenile correction system is way down -- because we have an excellent juvenile protection system here," she said.

"I really feel we're very effective at helping families and keeping kids safe in Becker County," she added. "A lot of kids in juvenile placement, I don't recognize their names -- they didn't grow up in Becker County."

Drugs and alcohol addictions can turn even good parents into dangers to their kids.

Meth rears its ugly head

"Meth is just so addictive, and it seems like it's so readily available again," Richgels said. "You beat it down and it keeps coming back up."

Prescription drug abuse is also on the rise, she said. "Once people get addicted to a substance, they'll do whatever it takes to get it."

Because older babies and toddlers are at a "touchy-feely" stage of life and like to feel and taste everything they come in contact with, a lot of preschoolers being removed from their homes in Becker County have "significant levels of drugs in their system," Richgels said.

"They can have some really significant physical, mental health and developmental-behavioral problems," she added.

Little kids that test positive for drugs are removed from their homes immediately, she said. "They aren't safe in their homes. Schools don't need kids coming into Kindergarten with drug addictions."

Often their parents come from similar backgrounds of abuse and neglect.

"So many are really fabulous parents when they aren't using," Richgels said. "But when they're using it all falls apart, with serious consequences for the kids."

Teaming up with police

County child protection workers sometimes call on families alone and sometimes they team up with law enforcement officers, Richgels said.

"People kind of love to hate us -- we wouldn't win any popularity contests," she added. "In cases where the family knows us and we have worked with them, the worker goes out alone. In other cases, because of the drugs and the meth, we often do joint investigations with law enforcement -- they have to make the determination of child endangerment."

The top reporters of child abuse and neglect are school districts and law enforcement, Richgels said. Others are neighbors, hospitals, doctors, and family members who finally speak up because things have gotten so bad, she said.

Chronic neglect is difficult to prove and usually requires multiple reports from school districts or others, Richgels said. "We need a pattern of behavior rather than a single incident in order to proceed -- I know it's frustrating for school districts."

The prolonged period of tough economic times has taken its toll, Richgels said.

"If you adjust for income, single parents do just fine," she said. "But when you're below the poverty line, it adds so much stress it results in a lot of abuse and neglect. Families hold on for a while, but when it goes on and on, they fall apart."