David Vukelich asked to be forgiven for sweating. He was sick, he said. But it did not stop him from addressing the Governor’s Task Force on the Protection of Children on Tuesday in Duluth City Council chambers.

Vukelich, a St. Louis County child protection social worker, spoke as part of a panel that addressed the task force. The task force was in town for the second in a series of statewide meetings.

Vukelich said he worked on 120 child protection cases last year.

“One hundred twenty is completely overwhelming,” he said. “If every agency in the state is at that level, it’s a disaster.”  

The task force was convened to address a child protection services system that has come under fire for having presided over too many tragedies across the state. It is expected to have early recommendations for changes to the system presented to the governor in December and final recommendations to the Legislature in March 2015.   

The panel of Vukelich and two other area child protection workers talked about how there is a child foster care crisis in St. Louis County, with not nearly enough beds. They spoke of a drug problem that is at the core of almost all the work they do with children and families. They said there is so much data entry required in their work that it threatens to compromise their investigations and responses - if it hasn’t already.

“We’re spending a lot more time at our desks,” said Vukelich, who investigates reports of child maltreatment to determine the county’s course of action.

Vukelich and the other members also spoke of long hours and of priorities and timelines that don’t always sync with the law enforcement officials with whom they’re supposed to be coordinating. At one point, Vukelich pleaded, “The important piece for us is we need help - resources.”   

Vukelich and the panelists answered questions from the task force of 16 people and additional  voices who were on speaker phone - human services directors, county commissioners and agency presidents and legislators, and even a former state Supreme Court judge, a police chief and a physician.

When they were done, Vukelich had a question for them.

“Are you considering a line worker on the panel?” Vukelich said, referring to the workers like himself who members of the task force had previously referred to as “the guts” and the “front lines” of the child protection process.  

Lucinda Jesson, the state’s Department of Human Services commissioner, gave a polite reply but not the affirmative answer for which Vukelich was looking.

“It is worrisome,” said Jean Sewell, a Lake County child protection worker based out of Two Harbors who spoke after the hearing. “He was dismissed, and that’s a concern for me. I hope this isn’t a politically motivated show.”

Scott County Director of Health and Human Services Judith Brumfield is a member of the task force. She said that what’s important is the task force is listening to line workers.     

“It is our job to represent and to go to the Legislature,” Brumfield said. “I was a child protection worker. It was the job I wanted.”

Gov. Mark Dayton assembled the task force earlier this fall. He was responding to a Minneapolis Star Tribune investigation into the death of Eric Dean, a 4-year-old Pope County boy who was killed by an abusive stepmother. The death, in February 2013, occurred despite 15 maltreatment reports from child care workers leading up to it. Only one of the reports ever reached law enforcement. The state’s reliance on family assessment over investigation has come under intense media scrutiny.

Family assessment is a practice intended to keep the family unit unified while it works on specific issues with the involvement and support of social workers. Dean’s death is not the only tragedy to occur while under the purview of the state’s child protection services. There are several others, including Layna Peterson, the 13-month-old Duluth girl who was killed by her father, Eric Peterson, earlier this summer. The Peterson family was being supported by social workers through the family assessment process at the time of Layna Peterson’s death in July.