Minnesota's child protection system needs comprehensive reforms that include more accountability to the public, better training for social workers and more investigations of reported abuse, a state task force recommended on Friday.

The group formed by Gov. Mark Dayton unanimously agreed to support more than 30 changes to the system that would also see social workers respond to more maltreatment reports and hold more of those abusers accountable. The task force also agreed to a statement that the state's preference for family engagement is "at times at odds with protecting children. We need to stop and readjust the pendulum."

But the task force remained deeply divided on several key issues, including whether to reform a controversial program called family assessment where abuse reports are not investigated. The group also has to address how to fund the changes before its final recommendations are due at the end of March.

Public demands for change followed the Star Tribune's report in August about the death of 4-year-old Eric Dean. Eric was the subject of 15 reports to Pope County child protection, including for facial bruises and bite marks, before he was murdered by his stepmother last year. Dayton formed the task force in September, and it spent weeks hearing testimony from numerous child advocates saying that the system routinely failed abused children.

Lucinda Jesson, co-chair of the task force and commissioner of the Department of Human Services, said Friday's recommendations were "a strong first step" and that her department will soon begin to implement some of them, such as developing better ways to measure the effectiveness of child protection.

"What's really important is the need to shift the way of how we're looking at child protection," Jesson said. "We need to first and foremost look at what's best for the child. And we need to look at whether the child is safe."

Other reforms will need to go through the Legislature, including the repeal of a law stating that family assessment be the "preferred" response to any child abuse report.

Family assessment growing

By using family assessment, social workers hope parents will be more willing to work with them if they do not find an abuser responsible for maltreatment. Services offered to families can be rejected, often resulting in the cases being closed. Family assessment was initially meant for less serious abuse cases, but has grown to become the primary method of child protection in the state.

A Star Tribune investigation published in October found family assessment being used for cases in which children were beaten, severely neglected and even sexually abused.

The task force concluded Friday that its use "has grown beyond what statute allows."

The group wants to make it harder for counties to close a case when parents are not cooperating with a family assessment. The group also wants the state's child protection agencies to adhere to similar standards when using family assessment, but members don't agree on what those standards should be.

Critics of family assessment say social workers need to gather more information.

"If we have a child protection system that says we will not determine what happened and who did it, how do you protect a child?" said former Minnesota Supreme Court Justice Kathleen Blatz.

Task force members representing child protection agencies say that punishing parents seldom keeps children safe. They instead favor services meant to strengthen a family and keep it together.

"To isolate the child from the family, that's my biggest fear," said Kathy Johnson, the director of Kittson County Social Services. "That bond between a parent and child is sacred, and should only be broken under specific circumstances. We need to be thoughtful about when we do that."

The task force also made several recommendations aimed at increasing the number of cases opened for a child protection response. Minnesota has one of the highest rates in the country of screening out abuse reports, where child protection does not provide services.

The task force will ask the Legislature in January to "immediately" repeal a law pushed by DHS and passed this year that prohibits social workers from taking into account rejected abuse reports when considering what to do with a new one. The group wants those reports to be considered. The task force also wants a law that would allow child protection workers to get information from other sources when they decide how to respond to an abuse report. DHS currently prohibits this practice.

Social workers also need more specialized training in all areas of child protection, and those outstate need better access, the task force concluded.

The group also pledged in coming weeks to address racial bias in the system, as minorities make up a higher proportion of children in child protection.

With many of the reforms likely to need an increase in funding, the task force will debate that issue into March. The group noted in their recommendation that the state and county spending on child protection has dropped by more than $41 million since 2002.