Special report: On 15 occasions, day-care workers and others told Pope County authorities that they suspected Eric Dean was being hurt. But it was not enough. His death exposes the failure of a system charged with protecting the youngest Minnesotans.
Bruises covered 3-year-old Eric Dean’s face. A scab formed above his lip. His ear bled from a red welt.
Before his stepmother, Amanda Peltier, left him at his new day care, she bent down to meet his blue eyes and told the boy to say he fell down.
Day-care provider Colleen Myslicki watched in disbelief. After studying the strange puncture wounds on Eric’s face and ear, she realized they were bite marks. Later that day, she asked him what happened.
Eric’s reply: “Mommy did it.”
As required by state law, Myslicki reported to Pope County child protection that she believed Eric was being abused. She didn’t know it then, but hers was the 12th report to alert social workers in the west-central Minnesota county to suspected maltreatment of the boy.
That scene and a string of others documented in court and social service records, testimony and interviews offer a rare view into the short and tragic life of Eric Dean and a child-protection system that was unable to save him.
Those records show that by the time Eric died at age 4 in February 2013, 15 reports had been filed on his behalf. The county’s child-protection agency investigated only one, after the boy’s arm was broken in 2011, and found no maltreatment. According to records, only one report was shared with police, despite state law directing that law enforcement should be notified of all suspected abuse reports.
An examination of Eric’s county and court records reveals the failings of a system built to protect Minnesota’s most vulnerable children: Caretakers such as Myslicki make reports to child protection and watch helplessly as the maltreatment continues. Reports often go uninvestigated and don’t get referred to police. Social workers frequently encourage parents suspected of neglect or abuse to attend parenting classes.
In the most tragic of cases, those children die. Fifty-four Minnesota children have died of maltreatment since 2005, despite child-protection agencies getting reports that the kids were at risk or their parents and caretakers were dangerous, according to a Star Tribune analysis of state and county child protection records.
Pope County’s review of the case, completed last month, concluded that the county should share more information with police and that state law should change to direct counties to consider previous reports when deciding whether to investigate an allegation. A child-protection worker testified that the county believed Eric was being abused, but in the face of the family’s denials and a lack of witnesses, could never prove it. The county declined to discuss details of Eric’s case but said it followed the law in how it responded to the multiple abuse reports.
“We responded to the information we received,” said Nicole Names, the county’s director of human services. “That’s about all I can say about that.”
Eric’s former caregivers are angry at the way the county responded to their warnings. Myslicki, who would ultimately file four reports during the six months Eric was in her care, sobbed uncontrollably all night when she found out he was dead.
“It felt so hopeless,” Myslicki said. “If the county had done more, I know he’d be alive today.”
The home Amanda Peltier shared with Eric’s father, David Dean, was supposed to be a refuge.
Eric had been living with his mother and her boyfriend. After reports had alleged Eric and his brother were being abused in that home, Eric’s father moved the boys to their apartment in November 2010.
But when Eric started attending Kingdom Kids day care in Glenwood, a day-care worker noticed something amiss. Brandi Knight, who taught in the toddler room, examined the facial bruises and bite marks on the little boy. She asked how he got them, but at that time, in December 2010, he couldn’t say. At 2 years old, Eric’s speech was delayed at least a year.
Knight knew the injuries could have been from other kids. But over time, Knight noticed new injuries, once or twice a week.
She asked Peltier about the marks. Eric is clumsy, she would say. Or, he could be uncontrollable and violent and bang his head on the walls or on his bed when he sleeps. His brothers and cousins bite.