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More than 20% drop in child abuse reports during pandemic triggers concerns
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Reports of child abuse and neglect declined sharply last year amid the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, a trend worrying, not reassuring, to local social services agencies and nonprofits.

Data provided by the Minnesota Prairie County Alliance (MNPrairie), the agency that provides social services for Steele, Waseca and Dodge counties, show its number of reports of child abuse decreased by 22% from 2019 to 2020. A decline of about 5% was seen in Rice County, according to Rice County Social Services. Those figures, especially the larger drop reported by MNPrairie, are in line with the state’s numbers. According to the Minnesota Department of Human Services, a 22% drop in child abuse reports was seen over the first 10 months of 2020, compared to the same period of 2019.

MNPrairie Executive Director Jane Hardwick noted that the decline in child abuse reports was particularly pronounced in the months immediately after the pandemic hit, as schools were forced to close completely leaving children separated from key mandated reporters, a group that includes educators, professionals required to report suspected abuse or neglect.

Hardwick added that the decrease has come even as local law enforcement agencies in the three-county area have seen more cases of domestic abuse, driven by the severe financial stresses inflicted by the pandemic as well as the challenges of life under lockdown.

Even as child abuse reports themselves have been down, MNPrairie saw a sharp increase in child welfare cases last year. While such cases don’t meet the threshold for a mandated response, they’re still cause for concern.

Heather Johnson, MNPrairie’s Child & Family Social Services Manager, noted that MNPrairie has two social workers devoted just to helping families in need with voluntary programs such as the Parent Support Outreach Program. The program is designed to provide early intervention to stabilize families with a variety of risk factors, such as poverty to mental health concerns. Families with a history of interaction with child protective services are also included, but not those with active cases.

The goal of the program is to avoid subjecting children to deprivation by connecting their families with local resources such as food shelves, free- or low-cost clothing programs, and affordable health clinics.

Traditionally, schools have provided crucial resources for bringing at-risk children into the child protection system. Without schools and after school programs operating in a normal manner, children are spending far less time not only with their peers but also trusted adults who may be mandated reporters.

Even so, Rice County Child & Family Services Supervisor Theresa Dworak said that her department has continued to meet monthly with school social workers, who have worked hard to stay connected with families. She noted that the county has built up a strong network of mandatory reporters that reaches far beyond the school systems. From medical providers to neighbors to church members, many members of the community have stepped up to provide reports.

In-person family assessments have continued throughout the pandemic, with both Rice County and MNPrairie working closely with Emergency Services departments to make it work. Staff are provided with PPE as well as training around proper safety protocol.

Another crucial resource, particularly for Rice County, has been an expansion of services for those struggling with opioid addiction. A majority of child abuse reports have traditionally been linked to drug or alcohol abuse, mental health crises or domestic violence.

The Rice County Chemical and Mental Health Coalition’s Mobile Opioid Response Team, launched in 2019, provides not only comprehensive care but the other resources people need during recovery, like transportation and emergency funding. The county has also made significant progress in providing medication-based treatments like suboxone, a drug used to treat opioid addiction, which can only be prescribed by a limited number of physicians.

Still, Jeff Dion of the Minnesota-based nonprofit Zero Abuse Project noted that child protective services can’t do anything about cases they don’t know about. To help agencies pick up on as many cases as possible, the Zero Abuse Project released a list of 25 tips for local agencies. Several points in the report highlight the importance of raising public awareness of the issue. While not all adults in Minnesota are mandatory reporters, unlike some states, anyone can voluntarily report if they have reason to believe or suspect abuse or neglect.

HOPE Center’s Erica Staab-Absher, who works with adult victims of domestic and sexual assault in Rice County and has seen a steep increase in the center’s clients since the pandemic began, knows the difficulties COVID has wrought on many area families: job loss or layoffs, online schooling and limits on gatherings. All are issues that can create an atmosphere ripe for child abuse.

“It gives us great concern that there are fewer eyes on kiddos, fewer opportunities for them to seek help. We’ve got to help those in the community reach out and make sure kids can have access to the help that they need,” she said.

Ruth's House replaces Hearts Gala with online fundraiser
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Women in crisis situations have turned to Ruth’s House of Hope for shelter and resources, and with COVID-19 adding insult to injury, the nonprofit has accrued extra expenses to support its residents.

This time of year, the nonprofit usually prepares for its biggest fundraiser, the Hearts Gala at the Faribault American Legion. Gathering over 300 guests under one roof isn’t conducive to COVID-19 guidelines, however, so Ruth’s House has a different plan.

In place of the Heart’s Gala, Ruth’s House will host the first annual Helping Hearts online fundraiser at 6 p.m. Saturday, Feb. 13. Registration for the event is available at ruthshousemn.org/helpinghearts. Proceeds from the event will benefit Ruth’s House of Hope as well as Sarah’s House, a sober-living home in Northfield where up to five women may stay at a time after they complete rehabilitation treatment.

“We have just one staff on duty; volunteers are not coming into the shelter to keep everyone safe and healthy,” said Sandy Varley, communications and outreach coordinator for Ruth’s House. “We’ve had to put residents in a hotel to quarantine. There are so many extra expenses.”

Varley said COVID-19 has brought on new struggles for women and children staying at Ruth’s House, including job loss and mental health issues. Trying to help their children with distance learning has added another layer of difficulty, she said, particularly for those with learning disabilities or language barriers. Even after everyone has been vaccinated, Varley said the repercussions will persist with the Ruth’s House population as they try to find jobs.

The other major need for Ruth’s House relates to the house itself. Varley said the third floor bathroom is in need of a remodel, so a portion of the fundraiser’s proceeds will go toward that project.

Ruth’s House also has an annual budget of about $270,000, and while about 43% of that funding comes from grants, it’s the community that funds the remainder.

“We are hoping to raise $125,000,” Varley said. “That’s our goal. That’s a lofty goal, but we’re hoping that happens for us.”

In 2020, the Hearts Gala raised $122,000 to put toward three main projects, including a Housing and Urban Development grant to fund the Ruth’s House off campus long-term supportive housing program in Faribault and Northfield. The other two facility projects included a security upgrade to protect residents, and the repair and restoration of the six pillars that hold up the historic house’s third floor.

Like the Hearts Gala, the Helping Hearts event will include speakers, a silent auction and live auction items for bidding. The silent and live auctions open a week before the event itself, at 7 p.m. Feb. 6, and close at 7 p.m. Feb. 14. At hhe.cbo.io., guests may bid on items like a one-week stay at Crown Point Resort, Bloom floral bouquets for a year, and classic pedicures for a year from Sunset Salon & Spa, among other offerings.

For entertainment, Faribault High School alumna Abigail Engbrecht will deliver a solo performance and national speaker and author Brenda Elsagher will share her comedy act “Can You See Me Laughing Behind My Mask?”

“We’re really excited about this,” Varley said. “I think it’s going to open up some new opportunities. What’s exciting is we were limited before to how many people could attend at the American Legion, and now it’s open to anyone with an internet connection. We’re excited to get our message out to more people.”

Faribault man pleads guilty to federal weapons charges
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A Faribault man with a history of violence, accused of illegally possessing weapons, pleaded guilty in U.S. District Court in Minneapolis.

Andrew Albert Comeaux, 38, who appeared before Judge Patrick J. Schiltz, admitted to possessing a .22 caliber rifle and a Russian-made Mosin-Nagant 7.62x54R caliber rifle, both found during a June 15, 2020 search of his home by several law enforcement agencies.

Comeaux also admitted to possessing an AR-15 style pistol with a large capacity magazine and a homemade suppressor/silencer. Comeaux has prior felony convictions in Blue Earth County and in Le Sueur County. Under federal law he’s prohibited from possessing firearms or ammunition.

Comeaux was convicted in June 2016 in Le Sueur County of two counts of second-degree assault and one count of theft. Police reported that in May 2015, Comeaux led two companions to a warehouse in the western portion of the county, and that while one of the men was texting, Comeaux struck him on the back of the head with a hammer. When the third man tried to help the victim, Comeaux threatened that man with the hammer, so he took off. Comeaux then struck the victim four more times.

According to the one of the victims, Comeaux believed the victim was stealing tools from his shop, and that “he needed to send him a message.”

Comeaux was also convicted of felony drug possession in Blue Earth County in May 2015.

He is scheduled to be sentenced on the one count of felon in possession of a firearm on May 25.

This case is the result of an investigation conducted by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, the South Central Drug Task Force, the Cannon River Drug Task Force, Rice and Steele County Sheriff’s offices, the Faribault and Owatonna Police departments, Metro SWAT and the St. Paul Bomb Squad with coordination from the Rice County Attorney’s Office.