Child protection service numbers remain high


In all states, the protection of children is of paramount importance in the legal system. The most vulnerable of citizens, the legal system has operated with cases directly dealing with the rights and safety of children. They go by the acronym CHIPS – Child In Need of Protection or Services.
At the March 31 meeting of the Wright County Board of Commissioners, the board was presented with the annual report from attorney Cathleen Gabriel of the CGW Law Office. Gabriel represents Wright County in local CHIPS cases and, in her annual report, the numbers, unfortunately, continue to remain steadily high.
After having 35 CHIPS cases on behalf of the county in 2012, over the last two years the numbers have grown – 55 in 2013 and 54 in 2014. Thanks to a proposal from Gov. Mark Dayton to tighten up the laws against children who are subjected to abuse, Gabriel said the conventional wisdom is that the numbers are going to continue to increase.
“Governor Dayton has put together a task force and stuff will be changing our way,” Gabriel said. “A lot of people do predict that our numbers will probably go up and I don’t doubt that. I think right now everything is in place and we’ll cross that road if that happens.”
The contract the county has with Gabriel, which runs through the end of 2016, calls for her to work approximately 20 hours a week. The 2014 numbers came out to approximately 21 hours a week and Board Chair Mike Potter asked if Gabriel or the county attorney’s office is adequately prepared in the event the predictions come true.
“You said that there is the potential for a spike in the numbers of cases,” Potter said. “Do you have a contingency plan in place in case that happens? I’m wondering if we have a plan in place if the number of cases does swell up in the next year or two.”
The problem, Gabriel said, is that the laws have been tightened up on the lawyers who are deemed equipped to adequately argue the cases – a problem that continues to grow and could be much more pressing if the governor’s plan results in a significant increase in the caseload of CHIPS cases.
“I’m going to take as many cases that come that get assigned to me,” Gabriel said. “A couple of years ago, the Legislature said you attorneys that do this type of work will have to be certified. We’re going to require you to have certification to even be able to appear to do what I do. I’m nervous about that because a lot of attorneys haven’t been doing that and haven’t put the time in doing that to learn this type of law and get on the roster. I’m a little nervous about that because, right now, we’re really short and they’re short in other counties. I think, quite frankly, there are two reasons. One, people kind of get burned out. This is tough, emotional stuff we see every day. Two, there’s not enough legal work in this for somebody to say I’m going to do child protection as part of my legal practice and then to put in the time for the certification and requirements.”
The board accepted Gabriel’s annual report and asked that she keep the board notified in the event the cases do increase significantly so that the county can come up with a game plan to litigate the cases.