A task force. Random checks of how counties are handling child abuse reports. Assistance for child protection workers seeking additional expertise in difficult decisions about whether to investigate family or other caregivers.
The measures proposed by Gov. Mark Dayton last week to improve the state’s embattled child protection system are pragmatic rather than dramatic. But in determining how to better protect Minnesota children after a Star Tribune story documented 4-year-old Eric Dean’s death from child abuse, the prescriptives Dayton launched through executive action this week are a sensible place to start.
Dayton deserves credit for moving forward while legislators of both political parties dallied. Still, he needs to ensure that these initiatives are executed with care and then built upon so that the state is doing everything possible to prevent another child from suffering the same fate.
While Eric is one of more than 100 Minnesota kids estimated to have died of maltreatment since 2005, the details reported about his death badly shook public confidence in the child protection system. Dayton clearly is committed to restoring that trust. But the governor also needs to be aware that one of his first decisions created doubts about his effort’s capacity to accomplish this.
Dayton picked Department of Human Services (DHS) Commissioner Lucinda Jesson and Ramsey County Commissioner Toni Carter to co-chair the task force. Both are hardworking, respected and care about children. But they represent the status quo, raising concerns that they may not be willing to dive in deep to address systemic problems outlined by the newspaper.
The hard truth is the current system failed Eric Dean miserably. The little boy from Starbuck, Minn., died in February 2013 after suffering a severe abdominal injury, and his father’s girlfriend is serving a life sentence for his murder.
An Aug. 31 Star Tribune story revealed that 15 reports alleging abuse, many from his day-care providers, had been filed with child protection staff at the time of Eric’s death. Yet he remained in the home where he had been battered and savagely bitten.
Dubious child protection guidelines in place at the time of Eric’s death were issued by DHS. These guidelines advised county staff not to consider prior reports in deciding whether to “screen in” abuse allegations. Jesson’s agency also pushed for a state law passed this year that prevents child protection workers from considering previous rejected reports of abuse in deciding how to handle abuse allegations. This could have prevented officials from recognizing and acting on a pattern of abuse.
Carter, the Ramsey County Commissioner, wrote an April 25 commentary for the Star Tribune defending the state’s current child protection system. She is also the 2014 president of the Association of Minnesota Counties, an organization whose representatives also defended the current system in a recent interview with an editorial writer.
This week, Jesson and Carter admirably acknowledged the importance of having system critics serve on the panel. It’s not yet known who the other members will be. But Dayton not only needs to make sure critics are seated, he needs to push the task force to live up to the trust he has placed in it.
To do that, the panel needs to look backward as well as forward. One of the most disturbing revelations in the Star Tribune’s coverage is that the policy and then law regarding prior abuse reports were put in place because of concerns that use of “prior maltreatment reports would increase the economic and racial disparities already prevalent in the child protection system.’’
In other words, a system intended to protect children may have put kids in jeopardy to make state processes look more equitable on paper. How did that goal, which serves adults’ aims, take priority over kids’ safety? That legislators approved codification of this change in 2014 — some have claimed they didn’t realize what they were voting for — is difficult to grasp as well.
Those are among the hard questions the task force needs to grapple with. Its recommendations are expected by the end of the year. The group has but a few months to come up with solutions — and to prove itself worthy of the critical mission with which it has been entrusted.