The state’s top child protection official wants to scrap a law her agency helped pass four months ago that made it more difficult for social workers to investigate maltreatment cases.
In May, the Legislature overwhelmingly approved a bill that forbids county child protection agencies from considering past abuse reports that were rejected when deciding whether to investigate a new report.
In the wake of the Star Tribune story on Aug. 31 about the death of 4-year-old Eric Dean, some of those same legislators say they did not realize what they had voted for, and now are calling for a law that will require agencies to consider all prior abuse reports.
“I don’t see why we would restrict past use of information under any circumstances,” said Sen. Kathy Sheran, DFL-Mankato.
Erin Sullivan Sutton, the assistant commissioner for children and family services for the Department of Human Services, said the law passed in May codified what had already been common practice for years.
Sullivan Sutton said DHS was concerned that allowing agencies to use prior maltreatment reports would increase the economic and racial disparities already prevalent in the child protection system. Sen. Jeff Hayden, DFL-Minneapolis, who sponsored the Senate version of the DHS bill, said he did not want child protection workers to confuse poverty with neglect. However, he said, the law was not intended to discourage those workers from identifying patterns of abuse.
Pope County received 15 abuse reports about Eric Dean before he was killed by his stepmother last year. Nine of those reports were screened out, meaning they were closed by the county’s child protection agency without investigation or assessment. That’s consistent with practices statewide, where agencies did not follow up on 71 percent of suspected maltreatment reports last year, one of the highest rates in the country.
Sullivan Sutton said in a statement last week that DHS is now working on a legislative proposal that “would allow child protection workers to consider prior allegations when deciding whether to investigate child maltreatment reports.”
She said the story on Eric Dean “certainly leads the reader to wonder about information on reports and how that information is used, or whether it is used. I think it’s part of always wanting to look at whether additional improvements can be made.”
No one knew ripple effect
Four legislators told the Star Tribune on Monday they did not know what they were voting for in May.
The language on what to do with screened-out abuse reports was introduced by DHS, Sullivan Sutton said, which was later wrapped into an omnibus bill that included dozens of new laws. “A screened-out report must not be used for any purpose other than making an offer of social services to the subjects of the screened-out report,” the law says. DHS pushed for the change to make the law consistent with its September 2012 guidance that counties should not consider any prior maltreatment history when considering what to do with a new report.
Sen. Sheran said DHS’ guidance makes no sense. Still, as chair of the Senate Health, Human Services and Housing Committee, Sheran sponsored the omnibus bill that restricted use of prior abuse reports, which she said she didn’t realize and now wants changed.
Rep. Tina Liebling, DFL-Rochester, who sponsored the House version of the omnibus bill, said she thought she was strengthening child protection by helping pass another bill that required counties to keep records of screened-out calls for a year.
“The point of what we changed was to do the opposite [of the DHS bill],” Liebling said.
Rep. Jay McNamar, a DFLer who represents the area where Eric lived, voted for the DHS bill, but also said he didn’t realize what he was supporting. “I probably should have,” he said.
Regardless, McNamar said, he now supports any change in law that will prevent any death similar to what happened to Eric.