As a child, Hank Marotske endured years of abuse and bounced in and out of foster homes, only to be returned to his violent alcoholic mother. Though much time has passed since he aged out of the system, Marotske told a state House committee Wednesday that children are enduring the same conditions today.
Marotske and several foster parents shared their stories with legislators as examples of why changes to the state's child-protection laws are vital.
Marotske's testimony came hours after a bipartisan group of lawmakers unveiled their first proposals to reform the laws. But they say there is still much work to be done.
Topping the 11-point plan is a mandate that child protection reports be referred to law enforcement and a policy change that would rank child safety above keeping families intact. Another key change: Investigators would be allowed to consider reports of abuse that have been "screened out" when they're looking into new cases.
"Society is paying for this," said Marotske of the pattern of abused children who age out of the system and repeat the cycle.
Today, Marotske is proud of his job as communications director for the Professional Association of Treatment Homes.
"A lot of people look at you and say 'Good job, Hank, you've done well,' " he said, "but I'm here despite my child welfare experience, and I think the bill will have a dramatic impact on the system."
The legislation stems from preliminary recommendations by the Governor's Task Force on the Protection of Children, launched after Star Tribune reports on the death of 4-year-old Eric Dean, who was beaten to death by his stepmother despite 15 reports to Pope County child protection.
Sen. Kathy Sheran, DFL-Mankato, said the legislation was triggered in part by the number of child abuse cases like Eric's that were screened out by child protection workers, "and our inability to track the rationale for that."
Part of it, Sheran said, could be a system that was tilted too far toward maintaining the family structure rather than ensuring children were kept out of harm's way — a key readjustment in the bills.
"We can talk about our angst and anxiety we feel when we read these reports, but I think you can really measure our reaction in these efforts we are making to reform," Sheran said.
The sponsors of the House and Senate bills say they expect to propose additional legislation when the task force releases its final report sometime in March. For instance, counties across Minnesota are expected to pay half the cost of child protection, despite the differences in property tax revenues they're able to collect. That leads to vastly unequal resources for handling cases.
The task force is expected to finish a full study on the financial impact of their suggested reforms. Sen. Julie Rosen, R-Fairmont, said the task force's full recommendations will be the result of "some very honest, true, transparent discussions … difficult decisions."
Rep. Joe Mullery, DFL-Minneapolis, who co-authored the legislation, said he intends to ask Gov. Mark Dayton to continue the task force for another year.
"Until next year, we are not going to have this issue resolved," he said. "This is our future. I think this task force needs to continue, but we'll continue working hard to try to get as much passed this year as possible."
The bill's chief House author, Rep. Ron Kresha, R-Little Falls, said that sending every report to law enforcement likely will not tax state resources, since multiple counties already have the same policy.
Writing it into law, he said, would make certain that it could be replicated throughout the state.
"A lot of this already has to happen," he said. "When I talk to law enforcement and ask what they think about this, the responses I got from the two law enforcement agencies I talked to were 'We're already doing this in a lot of cases. We investigate every 911 call, you know what? We can take 10 minutes for the well-being of our kids.' There isn't this enormous amount of information that's going to be sent forward, it's just ensuring that the intent of statute is carried out."
Minnesota Department of Human Services Commissioner Lucinda Jesson said future steps will hopefully involve data transparency to facilitate the easier sharing of records, and a review of child mortality rates "so we're not waiting to hear about it in the newspaper."
"This bill is a good starting place," she said. "But what it is, is a starting place."