The list of injuries 6-year-old Justis Burland-Arnett suffered before his April 9 death in Fergus Falls, Minn., is stomach-churning. Hair torn from his head. Possible scalding. Facial sores. Scratches across the shoulder and marks “from head to toe” from beatings with a stick or a rod, according to the criminal complaint against his caregivers. Some were inflicted while the boy was duct-taped to a wall.
Justis’ horrific case sadly resurfaced painful memories of another Minnesota child-abuse fatality — the death of Eric Dean, the Pope County 4-year-old whose tragic end was detailed in the 2014 Star Tribune special report “The Boy They Couldn’t Save.” To Minnesota’s credit, Eric’s death galvanized a state to scrutinize and improve the child protection system that failed him.
But the sad similarities between Eric’s and Justis’ deaths show how much work is yet to be done. As happened with Eric, Justis allegedly died at the hands of his caregivers. News reports also indicate Justis’ family has alleged that Otter Tail County social workers were warned of possible abuse. Minnesota must do better. Fortunately, lawmakers have an opportunity teed up for them to do just that.
Legislation championed by Rep. Ron Kresha, R-Little Falls, would set up training academies for those on the front lines against child abuse — the child welfare workers who screen reports, investigate and make a potential life-or-death decision about whether to remove a child from an abusive home. This pragmatic approach was among the recommendations made by the governor’s task force convened after the Star Tribune’s report on Eric Dean.
The academies would also address an embarrassing disparity. Minnesota lags when it comes to resources for this type of training. The state has far fewer workers dedicated to this than “peer” states such as Colorado and Pennsylvania, according to an analysis by the University of Minnesota’s Center for Advanced Studies in Child Welfare.
It also spends far less than these states on child welfare training. While Pennsylvania dedicates $354 for each child receiving a child protection response and Colorado spends $111, the Minnesota sum is $71.
The Kresha bill, as introduced, called for $5.4 million next year to start regional training academies, with $7.3 million the year after and $9.1 million in 2021. The robust state appropriations are to be commended, as is the regional approach. Having academies close by vs. centralized in the Twin Cities metro area would minimize the time child protection staff spend away from their vital day-to-day duties.
Regrettably, this initiative lacks the momentum it deserves at the State Capitol. The reason: the dollars it requires. Senate leaders are proposing a significantly less-expensive version — one that would replace the permanent, technology-driven academies with mobile training. An example: A trainer comes to county facilities periodically and sets up in a conference room. On the House side, there’s also debate over diverting funding from one child protection program pot of money (instead of new general fund dollars) to fund the new training.
While there’s certainly room for compromise, there’s also an argument to be made that Minnesota has underspent on child welfare training for far too long. A more robust and ongoing financial commitment from the state is reasonable to make up for this. The Kresha bill as introduced is preferable to the Senate’s economy-class approach.
It is regrettable that Gov. Mark Dayton did not include dollars for this training in his supplemental budget, though a spokesman said last week he supports the regional training academies. Legislative Republicans’ midsession budget adjustments also appear to leave little flexibility to meet this critical human services need.
Justis’ tragic death, which made national headlines, is a reminder that the work to prevent child abuse cannot falter. Better training and ongoing dollars for it are pragmatic steps forward. This is no place to cut corners.