Gov. Mark Dayton took immediate steps Monday that he said will protect Minnesota's children from abuse and prevent the kinds of systemic failures that led up to the death last year of 4-year-old Eric Dean.

The state will begin conducting random checks to see if counties are wrongly rejecting abuse reports, Dayton said, and will set up a team of child protection specialists to respond rapidly to social workers struggling with difficult cases. The governor also created a task force that will review how Minnesota's child welfare system can improve and make recommendations by the end of the year.

Dayton said he wants the Legislature to take action on those recommendations by January.

The changes follow a series of Star Tribune stories in recent months about child protection failures in the state, including the case of Eric, whose abuse was reported to Pope County child protection 15 times before he died.

"The picture of 4-year-old Eric Dean, smiling at the camera, despite a visible wound on his face, will haunt me for a long time," the governor said.

Some who have criticized the child protection system say Dayton's actions are the first positive steps they have seen in years. Dr. Lisa Hollensteiner, an Edina emergency room physician for 26 years, said she has become frustrated that abuse that she's required to report often fails to prompt action.

Dayton read a letter Hollensteiner wrote to the Star Tribune in which she said her "heart sinks" when she makes those reports, even though, as a trained medical professional, she should be taken seriously.

The task force will be formed by early October and co-chaired by Human Services Commissioner Lucinda Jesson and Ramsey County Commissioner Toni Carter.

In April, Carter, who is president of the Association of Minnesota Counties, authored a counterpoint in the Star Tribune challenging a previous newspaper story that Minnesota had one of the lowest rates of responding to abuse reports.

In her op-ed, Carter defended Minnesota's child protection system, which is county-run.

On Monday, Carter said she will have no biases on the panel other than "to make sure all children are safe."

"Even one failure to protect a child is too much," she said.

Carter said she also will consider naming critics of the child protection system to the task force and making those meetings open to the public. The governor's executive order requires those meetings to be open and to accept public comment.

Rich Gehrman, head of the advocacy group Safe Passages for Children, said the success of the task force will hinge on its membership.

"They need folks on the ground, who can say what's really going on," he said.

Dayton's opponents in the governor's race criticized his actions on child protection on Monday, with Independence Party candidate Hannah Nicollet saying they were "too little, too late."

Republican candidate Jeff Johnson said he was "troubled by [Dayton's] continuous pattern of creating or contributing to problems and then trying to claim credit for fixing them after the damage is done."

Johnson referred to a law passed by the Legislature this year that barred counties from considering prior abuse reports when deciding how to handle a new one.

That law was pushed by DHS to codify existing practice.

Dayton said Monday that law should be changed.

Jesson said that while Minnesota ranks high in overall child well-being, "we have seen far too many children fall through the cracks."

Brandon Stahl • 612-673-4626