That total is the highest in the state’s records, which go back to 2005. The Department of Human Services said it will study each case to probe whether county social workers missed chances to save the child, but an initial review has found that some counties could have done more.
“In some of the cases, there was nothing to predict a child might die or be at risk,” said Erin Sullivan Sutton, DHS assistant commissioner of Children and Family Services. “In others, more action could have been taken to ensure the child’s safety.”
Sullivan Sutton did not elaborate, citing privacy laws that shield the children’s identities from the public. Through police, court and county records, the Star Tribune identified four of the seven children who died last year despite previous intervention from child protection authorities.
Beginning in May 2009, Pope County Child Protection received 15 abuse and neglect reports about Eric Dean, 4, and his family. Caregivers took photos of bruises and bite marks on his head. The county conducted one investigation in July 2011 and found no maltreatment. In February 2013, the boy was flown to St. Cloud Hospital, his abdomen bruised and distended from blunt trauma. He died two days later. A doctor found the injuries revealed “uncommon” and “vicious” abuse. Amanda Peltier, fiancée of the boy’s father, told police and a doctor that she had slapped the boy, bit him and “launched” him across a room, but blamed his injuries on other falls.
Peltier is currently on trial on first-degree murder charges. Pope County would not discuss its handling of the boy’s case.
Over the last nine years, 26 children have died from abuse and neglect in Minnesota, and 79 others have suffered life-threatening injuries despite previous evaluations by child protection agencies. The number of children who were supposed to be protected by counties but died or suffered near-fatal injuries from abuse or neglect averages about one a month.
Some child advocates say the number of child deaths and near fatalities in Minnesota shows the system is failing.
“I’m not surprised, but it alarms me,” ex-legislator and former Supreme Court Chief Justice Kathleen Blatz said when presented with the Star Tribune’s findings. Blatz has spent decades working on child welfare issues. “Every piece needs to improve. Every piece.”
A review of Minnesota’s cases would likely reveal basic failures to protect children whose histories revealed multiple warning signs, said Michael Petit, a former commissioner of Maine’s Human Services Department and current president of Every Child Matters, an advocacy group that seeks to end child abuse. “It could be that social workers are overworked. It could be that some counties have stronger policies than others when dealing with this,” he said.
Child fatality records are open to the public in many other states. In Minnesota, state laws restrict access to nearly all of the information kept by the counties and DHS. A federal agency notified Sullivan Sutton last month that the state needs to provide more public access to the records.
Minnesota is one of nine states where it’s up to counties to decide whether to accept an abuse report and investigate. In 2013, the state’s 87 counties received more than 67,000 reports of suspected child abuse or neglect, but closed seven out of 10 cases without an investigation or assessment.
State law requires child protection workers to keep a family intact, unless they feel a child is in extreme danger. They can require parents to get drug or mental health treatment, or enroll in parenting classes. When parents don’t comply, a county can remove the child, but only with a judge’s order.
Mom, boyfriend charged
Hennepin County social workers began working with Key’ontay Peterson’s family in 2012, after receiving a report that his mother’s boyfriend was abusing Key’ontay, who needed five stitches above his right eye. Social workers received five abuse calls before the boy died in June 2013. His mother, Sha’reese Miller, faces manslaughter charges and the boyfriend, William Warr, is charged with first-degree murder.
In Ramsey County, social workers had multiple contacts with Freda Perdue before the death of one of her children.
Twice in 2012, officials investigated Perdue for child abuse and neglect. Perdue drank so much in her White Bear Lake apartment that she fell asleep on top of her son, Dontrell Stademeyer, when he was only 6 weeks old, records show. A neighbor heard the baby crying and got the apartment manager to open the door. Social workers closed the case two weeks later, records show.
In October 2012, officials took Dontrell and his three siblings into emergency custody after Perdue was again suspected of drinking and falling asleep on the baby. Four months later the boy lay dead on a mattress, an apparent victim of sudden infant death syndrome, records show. A gift from the county stood in the mother’s bedroom: a new crib, neatly made and unused.
Perdue faces sentencing next month after pleading guilty to child endangerment. She declined to comment. Authorities took custody of Perdue’s other three children after Dontrell died but returned them to their mother in 2013 for “trial visits,” according to court records.
Ramsey County officials said they could not talk about the case.
Death in a car
Clay County child protection began providing services for Andrew and Shayna Sandstrom in 2010 after Moorhead police responded to a call that two children, ages 2 to 3, were locked out of their home and standing in the rain.
Officers went to the children’s apartment and found dirty diapers strewn everywhere. A baby lay face down in her crib. The father, Andrew Sandstrom, told officers that he had fallen asleep when his kids went outside and did not know where they were, according to court records.
Four months later, officers returned to the apartment on a welfare check after a teacher reported that three of the children had not been to school for a week. Sandstrom told police the kids had been sick. County child protection decided that the complaint didn’t warrant providing the family with services.
The same decision was made following maltreatment reports in November 2011 and October 2012. A new case on the family was opened following a report in November 2012.
In June 2013, Sandstrom unloaded five of his children from a van, but forgot about 5-month-old Christiana, he later told police. The temperature outside was about 80 degrees; it may have reached 125 inside the van. Sandstrom watched a movie with his kids and took a nap. His wife, Shayna, called twice and asked how the kids were doing. He took another nap. After four hours, Sandstrom realized his mistake and rushed out to the van. Christiana’s face was purple. He called 911, but the girl was already dead.
The county removed the other children from the Sandstroms’ custody. They moved back into the home two months later.
Sandstrom pleaded guilty to second-degree manslaughter and was sentenced in January to 10 years of probation.
The seven deaths from 2013 don’t include cases where agencies received reports of abuse but did not step in to help the child. Last month, the Star Tribune reported that Minnesota was among the most prolific states at “screening out” reports of child abuse.
One screened-out case involved Nicole McKay of Sauk Rapids. She was 32 weeks pregnant and had a 1-year-old child, according to court records, when she contacted Benton County child protection in September 2013. She told the county she used prescription painkillers on a daily basis, did not know if she had a valid prescription, and wanted a drug dependency assessment. Because her child had not yet been born, the county took no protective action and suggested she contact her insurer.
Two months later, a medical clinic reported to the county that McKay had not brought her newborn daughter, Emma Dennis, back for a follow-up appointment after a possible pertussis diagnosis, and McKay wasn’t calling the clinic back. The county screened that call out, referring the family to a voluntary program for family support.
Four days later, on Nov. 25, Emma was found on the floor of her parents’ bed, a blanket covering her face. The child’s parents admitted to police they used drugs before the girl’s death. In addition, a son tested positive for meth and a narcotic painkiller after ingesting the drugs.
McKay pleaded guilty to child neglect in Emma’s death, and for storing meth near the son. The father has been charged with storing meth in the presence of a child and allowing a child to ingest the drug.
County officials removed the boy from the parents’ custody. They would not talk about the case.