Eric told her he bit himself. DeGeer reported it to the county.
That same day, Myslicki filed her first report, that she saw facial bruises and bite marks on Eric’s cheek and ear, which was bleeding.
“Mom coached Eric into saying he hurt himself,” she told the county.
Rather than determine whether abuse happened, the county referred the family to a state program known as family assessment. Made state law nearly a decade ago, the program tries to teach adults to be better parents. The program is intended only for children in “low-risk” situations, but family assessment has become so prevalent in Minnesota that it’s now used by counties in lieu of investigation more than 70 percent of the time.
And unlike investigation, in which child-protection workers determine whether abuse or neglect occurred, family assessment is voluntary.
The assessment was assigned to Lurken-Tvrdik. She went to the home and took photos of Eric, which showed bruises to his left ear, his forehead, his right cheek and under his right eye, and a scab above his lip. Unlike the last time she saw Eric, he wouldn’t talk or look at her.
“He looked very sad,” Lurken-Tvrdik later testified in court. “Yes, I definitely saw a change.”
Dean and Peltier declined help from the county, which closed the case.
The next week, Eric came to day care with a bruised face and neck, a bleeding right ear and a fat lip. Myslicki alerted child protection once again, and the county screened out that report.
Myslicki began keeping a log of the boy’s injuries. On Feb. 14: black and blue marks on his forehead. Feb. 22: swollen left cheek and a left black eye. The next day: bruises on his right cheek starting to turn black and blue. The day after that: more bruises on his forehead and nose.
The log was enough to get the county to open another family assessment case, Eric’s third in his three years of life.
On March 13, 2012, Lurken-Tvrdik and another county child-protection worker, Amy Beckius, met again with Peltier at her Starbuck home. This time, Eric’s father was there.
Though Peltier did most of the talking, she and Dean both told the child-protection workers that they never laid a hand on any of their children. Peltier told them what she told day-care providers: Eric’s injuries were largely a result of his own doing. The bites, she said, came from other kids, including their 6-month-old son.
Eric’s grandparents told the social workers they saw no signs of abuse. Eric’s siblings also said their parents didn’t physically punish them.
A week after Peltier and Dean met with child protection, Eric went for a checkup at Glenwood Medical Center. His nurse practitioner said there was no medical explanation for the boy’s bruises.
The county identified Eric as high-risk for more maltreatment, then closed the case on April 5, 2012.
“It would appear,” Beckius wrote, “that the family is willing to access what services are needed for Eric and they continue to deny any physical means of punishment to Eric... .”
At day care, Myslicki said the signs of abuse stopped for a few months until one morning in August 2012. Peltier was furious with Eric when she came to pick him up, Myslicki said. The boy cowered as Myslicki held on to him. Peltier slapped Eric out of her hands, knocking him to the floor, and yelled at him to get his shoes on, according to Myslicki.