The Legislature took the first step Thursday toward a dramatic overhaul of Minnesota’s troubled child protection system, proposing measures that ultimately would launch more child abuse investigations.

After reports of widespread child protection failures, the task force created by Gov. Mark Dayton came back in just three months with solid solutions that already have garnered bipartisan support.

The task force also met Thursday, and heard from several speakers who said far more work needs to be done to protect vulnerable children while addressing racial disparities in the system.

The legislation is the first of what’s expected to be a multiyear legislative effort, said Sen. Julie Rosen, R-Vernon Center, a co-author of the bill and a task force member. “These are components that are easily agreed upon,” she said.

Even so, the measure marks a significant move toward a harder line on stopping child abuse. It would do away with a law passed last year that prohibited counties from considering past abuse reports when deciding whether to investigate a new one. And it would allow social workers who take those abuse reports to gather additional information when deciding whether to open a case.

Social workers would have to follow guidelines set by the Department of Human Services (DHS) when deciding what to do with an abuse report. If counties reject a report, they must document why that decision was made and keep those records for at least five years.

The DHS also would develop a plan to perform quality-assurance reviews of how counties respond to reports, and provide oversight to make sure that counties are handling the reports appropriately and consistently. The DHS would be required to issue annual summaries of those reviews to the public.

Final report due in March

The task force, created in response to the Star Tribune’s reporting last year on failures in child protection, recommended those changes in December. Many of the other recommendations, including requirements to investigate more abuse cases, likely will emerge as bills in the coming weeks, Rosen said.

When the task force issued its initial recommendations, it remained divided on several issues. Those divisions include how to use family assessment, a controversial response to child abuse reports where social workers do not determine if a child was abused and who was responsible.

The task force has until the end of March to issue its final recommendations. While that likely will be past the time the Legislature would consider anything controversial, Rosen said, “this is a two- to three-year process to really do this right.”

‘It’s hands-off now’

During Thursday’s meeting, representatives of minority groups criticized the disproportionate number of African-American and American Indian children in the system and the failure to respond when those children are abused.

Ten years ago, social workers would be far more likely to act on reports of suspected abuse, said Vivian Jenkins Nelson, a member of the African-American Working Group on Child Protection.

“Now, it’s a feeling as though they are leaving the community alone,” she told the task force. “It’s hands-off now.”

That group wants to see the development of paraprofessionals who would work as cultural mediators with child protection workers, the creation of an ombudsman for children that would be housed in the governor’s office and increased supervision of child protection by the DHS.

Indians’ loss of culture

American Indian child advocates also criticized the system for its lack of response to reported abuse. Once those children are in the system, the advocates said, they often are traumatized further by being disconnected from their culture and staying in foster care too long.

“The real tragedy is in the stories of the families that are not having the opportunity to receive services that will really help them heal as a family and allow them to move forward,” said Shannon Smith, the executive director of the American Indian Law Center.

Indian children represent about 2 percent of the state’s population and 17 percent of children placed in foster care — one of the worst disparities in the country, Smith said.

Patina Park, the executive director of the Minnesota Indian Women’s Resource Center, said that often the damage to children who are put into foster care is worse than being left in an abusive home.

“The child protection system and foster care is the first level of grooming for our girls and [sex] traffickers,” she said. “It is placing them away from the community, away from their identity and the strength that comes from that cultural connection and their family and tribe, and it’s leaving them vulnerable.”