The violent death of a 23-month-old boy in Brooklyn Park will loom over a task force created to improve child protection in Minnesota as it meets Friday morning to make its first set of recommendations.
Kazerion Raeline Harper’s death from blunt-force injuries was ruled a homicide Thursday by the Hennepin County medical examiner. On Thursday night, Brooklyn Park police arrested suspect Reggie Harper, the boy’s 23-year-old father, who was reported to child protection at least three times for child abuse since January 2012, records show.
Harper was being held in the Brooklyn Park jail late Thursday.
The abuse became so severe that Hennepin County ordered Kazerion and his brother placed in foster care last summer. They were reunited with their mother in March, despite Hennepin County saying that Harper was not complying with a plan to keep the children safe.
The case “will be in the back of everybody’s minds, if not the front of everybody’s minds,” said state Sen. Kathy Sheran, DFL-Mankato, a task force member. “If what we do … is just move around the silverware in the drawer, if that’s what the recommendations are, I think people will object to that.”
Gov. Mark Dayton formed the task force in September in response to the Star Tribune’s reporting on child protection failures. The 26-member group has until the end of December to make its first set of recommendations to the governor and Legislature on what should be done to improve the system.
On some issues, there is near universal agreement, including doing away with a controversial law passed this year that prohibited child protection agencies from using rejected abuse reports when considering whether a new report has merit. Many on the task force also say the state Department of Human Services needs to improve its monitoring of county child protection agencies.
However, on many other issues, the task force is divided, including how social workers should use a controversial program called family assessment, where a child abuse report is not investigated. Supporters of the program, which has become the primary method for responding to abuse reports in the state, say with the threat of punishment removed, parents are more likely to work with social workers to keep their children safe. Opponents argue that children at high risk for abuse are less safe because an abuser is not identified.
Cases adding up
Kazerion is at least the 57th child to die since 2005 in Minnesota from maltreatment despite the family being known to child protection, the Star Tribune has found.
A draft of the proposals sent to the task force on Thursday had what member Judith Brumfield said was “a good start,” but there is still far more work to be done.
“They are not at this point substantial changes to the system,” said Brumfield, who is the director of Scott County’s Health and Human Services Department.
Brumfield said the three months to review the system has not been enough to suggest comprehensive changes. The governor gave the task force until the end of March to make its final recommendations.
‘Choked me unconscious’
Brumfield also said Kazerion’s death will affect the task force’s meeting, calling it a tragic, all-too-familiar case of an abuse victim continuing to let an abuser back into her life. But she said child protection probably had little, if any, ability to prevent the boy’s death.
Court records show that Harper was not only accused of abusing two children, but also of frequently beating his girlfriend, the mother of their two children.
Following a report that Harper abused then 3-month-old Kazerion, a juvenile court judge ordered the children put in foster care in June 2013. The next month the boy’s mother filed a restraining order against Harper to comply with child protection, records show.
Harper “choked me unconscious when I tried to stop him from inflicting harm on our child,” the woman wrote. “Our kids got took and I am trying to get them back.”
Court records show that over the next several months, the woman complied with a case plan meant to show that she could keep her children safe if they were returned to her. Harper was not complying with a case plan, records show. But because he was not a custodial parent for the children, the court had no jurisdiction over him.
Instead of returning the children to the mother’s custody, the county could have proceeded to a trial for the woman, said Mark Fiddler, a juvenile law attorney. “But all that would accomplish is to get the mother to do what she was already doing,” he said.
After child protection services closed the case in March, Brumfield said social workers had to trust that the woman would continue to maintain the safety of her children. The woman’s restraining order against Harper was still in place when Kazerion was killed.
Child protection “can’t keep him out of the home if she lets him back in,” Brumfield said. “… [I]t’s a lot tougher to protect children than the public would like to believe.”