Master's Project Title:

The Department of Human Services: A Public Health and Social Work Lens (Executive Summary)

MCH Student:

Ann (Annie) Patnode

Date of Defense:

April 28, 2017



My internship at the Department of Human Services enabled me to see and experience the intersection of my personal and academic interests. I was located in the Child Safety and Permanency division, which works to prevent child abuse and neglect, intervening when necessary. The division also develops and provides state-wide, competency-based trainings for child protection workers in Minnesota’s 87 counties and 11 tribes.1 My field experience provided me the opportunity to wear many hats and tailor my learning to my various interests: public health, social work, women’s health, adoption, child development, advocacy, and prevention.

Through my field experience as the Child Safety and Permanency intern, I was able to weave Public Health in with my other interest and dual degree in Social Work. My interest is in bettering the overall health and well being of families, through both Public Health, with a Maternal and Child Health concentration, and Social Work, with a Children and Families concentration. Undoubtedly, there is no one version of “family,” and the families that DHS works with and for, like my experience there, are unique.

Many of the DHS programs and services offered to Minnesotan families arguably have more of a social service lens; however, there are additional preventative services DHS offers that focus on public health.2,3 These programs, along with the division’s goal to establish early intervention services, contribute to an underlying connection to public health. Public health concerns like access to contraception, teen pregnancy, Minnesota’s current opioid epidemic, and barriers to fertility play significant roles in both child safety and permanency in the state of Minnesota.


I spent 400 hours at DHS throughout the 2015-2016 academic year, working on and familiarizing myself with several aspects of adoption and permanency, including policy, child protection, and where public health fits in. This significant length of time allowed me the opportunity to get to know the organization and its “commitment to bettering the lives of Minnesotans.”4 In working with my field instructor, I developed several learning goals for my time at DHS and the strategies I would implement to achieve them. These goals included developing an understanding of macro level practice at a state organization, attaining a comprehensive understanding of Minnesota’s public and private adoption processes and policies, and focusing on the intersection of Public Health and Social Work.

My immersion into DHS helped me achieve my initial goals and uncover others I had not anticipated. Firstly, I was able to attend several child welfare conferences and unit consultation meetings with various counties. During these meetings we discussed concerns, best practices of child protection workers, along with state policy expectations. Participating in these meetings helped me connect the macro work of DHS to the micro, or direct work, of Minnesotan child protection workers. Secondly, in regard to adoption policy and procedures, an important part of my experience was revising a 10-year-old public document that describes adoption procedures for adoptive parents, biological parents, and adoption agencies. My revisions ensured that the information reflected current state laws and statutes affecting Minnesota’s adoption processes. Thirdly, I was able to shadow several DHS staff, including the coordinator for the Children’s Trust Fund of Minnesota. This led to my involvement with the Family Home Visiting Advisory Group’s monthly meetings where public health nurses would meet to discuss their work with new mothers in the state. I also attended DHS’s Birth to Five workgroup meetings and observed their research and work in early childhood development. Lastly, I assisted in gathering research for a Child Trends and University of Wisconsin research study focused on adopted youth outcomes.


The mission of the agency states “The Department of Human Services, working with many others, helps people meet their basic needs so they can live in dignity and achieve their highest potential.”4 My personal interests aligned seamlessly with the organization’s focus and as a Title IV-E Scholar in my MSW program, my education centered on child protection and provided a certain amount of proficiency in the agency’s vision to work toward “Healthy people, stable families, and strong communities.”5 Work still needs to be done though as 489 Minnesotan children were in need of adoptive homes and nearly 14,000 children experienced out-of-home placements in 2015.6

However, DHS’s Child Safety and Permanency division was undergoing major changes along with an unprecedented amount of public scrutiny as a result of a recent child protection case in the state in 2014. Governor Dayton’s Task Force on the Protection of Children impacted the work at DHS greatly while I was there and much of the division seemed overworked and overwhelmed with both public and private agency expectations. The field of child welfare and child protection is notorious for front line workers’ high turnover rates, yet the division’s nearly 80 employees had, for the most part, spent years in their positions working to better the lives of children and families.

Lessons Learned

While my time at DHS was fruitful, and I admittedly received well-rounded training and education from the staff there, I also have to admit my experience felt to be “a mile wide and an inch deep.” In hindsight, I should have advocated to pursue one project that would have been more useful to the agency. While I believe my presence was helpful, I often felt out of the loop and in the way. On many occasions, deadlines came up unexpectedly and priorities often had to shift instantly, leaving me unable to complete many of the projects I began. The organization seemed to be in a reactive state, instead of a proactive one. My experience though, was still a great one. I achieved my goals and learned more about the agency, adoption process, and the many cross-sections of Public Health and Social Work than I had anticipated.


To my knowledge, the Child Safety and Permanency division had not had an intern or student working with them for years. That, along with public scrutiny and a heavier workload, contributed to an overall state of uncertainty. Much of my experience was driven by me and my goals. I would recommend though, that in the future, DHS staff establish their goals at the onset of the internship to define how a student can both learn and reciprocally benefit the agency. Further, in working in the adoptions unit, I often felt disconnected to the work and employees in other units. Instead of collaboration, I saw seclusion. I would recommend more of an emphasis be placed on bridging the gaps between units within the division to make it a more cohesive workplace. Finally, diving deeply into state policy and statutes, I often found the language and concepts confusing or complicated. DHS does emphasize the importance of connecting and communicating with Minnesotans; I would recommend they continue to push for even more transparency and accessibility between this state agency and the individual Minnesotans it serves.


Overall, my field experience was positive and unique. It was a year of discovering distinctions and parallels between these two fields, Public Health and Social Work, which I hope to blend together one day. My decision to pursue these two degrees was in an effort to narrow my focus and options for a fulfilling career; however, my interests and education have opened more doors than I ever could have imagined.


  1. The Minnesota Department of Human Services. Organization/Management. (2016, December 21). Retrieved from: evisionSelectionMethod=LatestReleased&dDocName=id_000261
  2. Help Me Grow. (nd). Retrieved from:
  3. Minnesota Department of Human Services. Safe Place for Newborns law keeps infants safe. (2017, February). Retrieved from: 6504-ENG
  4. Minnesota Department of Human Services. Who We Are. (2016, December 3). Retrieved from:
  5. Minnesota Department of Human Services. (2016, April 7). Northstar Care for Children & Adoption/Kinship Placement Procedures in Minnesota – Region 10.
  6. Minnesota Department of Human Services. Adoption and Concurrent Permanency Planning: Working together to help families. (2016, October). Retrieved from: