The first of many expected measures to reform the state’s child protection system cleared the Senate Judiciary Committee Thursday amid concerns from at least one lawmaker that the reforms don’t go far enough to address concerns for families of color.

The bill which, would mandate that all child protection reports be referred to law enforcement and allow investigators to consider reports of abuse that have been “screened out” when they’re looking into new cases, heads next to the Senate Finance Committee. A House version passed 130-0 last month, though lawmakers in both bodies say the legislation is just a start to reforming the state’s child protection laws.

Sen. Bobby Joe Champion, DFL-Minneapolis, took issue with a specific aspect of the legislation that prioritizes child health and safety over keeping the family intact when social workers make decisions on how or whether to intervene in suspected abuse cases.

“The child being paramount and the family being second appears to undermine the family structure,” said Champion, who pointed out that families of color are disproportionately represented in the state’s child protection system. “People have come to me saying there is a problem with this bill; that there is a problem with its interpretation to have another layer of discretion."

 While the bill’s sponsor, Sen. Kathy Sheran, DFL-Mankato, and former Minnesota Supreme Court Chief Justice Kathleen Blatz, both who served on the Governor’s Task Force on the Protection of Children, said the new legislation in no way undermines the family’s role.

“There’s nothing in this bill that suggests the family is unimportant,” Sheran said. “It just suggests the key importance is the child.”

The legislation stems from the death of 4-year-old Eric Dean, who was beaten to death by his stepmother despite 15 reports to Pope County child protection and clear evidence that he was being abused.

Blatz testified that Dean’s death revealed “a real problem” in the state’s child protection system, in that only 30 percent of reports “screened in,” or verified as possible abuse. Nationally, she said, that’s less than half of what other states are doing.

“There were 15 reports on this child,” Blatz said of Dean. “Bites on his face, bruises on his ears...Fifteen reports, two family assessments were done and the family services provider was paying the stepmother’s utility bills, as if that’s what led her to kill her child,” Blatz said, adding “Many of these bills are about getting child protection back to what it is supposed to do.”

“The fact is, this little boy that died, Eric Dean, he may be an anomaly, but statistically, way too many families have repeat reports made on them and are not screened in,” she said.

Champion pointed out that Dean was different in that most of the child protection system is made up of poor African American children who benefit from keeping family structures intact.

“When we have a situation where individuals make knee-jerk reactions based on a sad, unfortunate thing that happened in society, we move so quickly to change this or that,” Champion said. “The problem is that it creates blind spots, anxiety and continued uncertainty.”

Sheran said that before the bill heads to its next stop, she’s open to adding language that would require training for social workers dealing with other cultures involved in the system. Prioritizing the child’s safety, she said, doesn’t mean their family isn’t’ important.

But, she added, “There may be circumstances where child protection needs to be the priority concern.”