Gov. Mark Dayton signed a sweeping new series of child protection reforms on Friday, while giving agencies across the state $52 million to hire more workers and expand services for abused children.
The reforms follow a set of changes Dayton ordered in March, which require child protection workers to put the best interests of the child above keeping a family intact, and to review past abuse reports when considering how to handle a new one.
"It's evidence we can work together, and be bipartisan, for people that really need help," Dayton said Friday afternoon. "That was a really great accomplishment, a significant one, and I was proud to sign it today."
The reforms are among more than 100 recommendations by a task force Dayton formed last year in a response to a series of Star Tribune reports on failures in child protection. The newspaper found that at least 58 children have died from maltreatment since 2005, even when public agencies had been warned they were in danger from their caregivers.
The legislation Dayton signed on Friday, which was overwhelmingly supported by both the House and the Senate, will require social workers to receive more training, undergo background checks, and investigate an additional range of cases, such as when preschoolers are reported to be struck in the head and face.
Additional new laws will require child protection workers to share all abuse reports with police. And if a family rejects services from a child protection agency, workers must review the case with their county attorney before closing it. In addition, counties can no longer modify screening guidelines in ways that reduce the number of children placed into child protection.
"Overall, children in Minnesota are going to be safer because of this bill," said Human Services Commissioner Lucinda Jesson.
Her department, which oversees county child protection agencies, must review county practices and produce an annual report of those reviews under the new law. The agency must also beef up the panel that reviews child deaths and near-fatalities to identify how child protection can improve, based on those incidents.
Another bill Dayton signed on Friday opens more child protection records to the public by requiring agencies to disclose certain regulatory information when a child dies or suffers a near-fatal injury, including whether that child or family was known to the agency before the incident.
Dayton also allocated funding designed to reduce the racial disparities in child protection. Minority children make up about 20 percent of the state's child population, yet account for more than half of the children in foster care.
The legislation also allows the Department of Human Services to partly withhold child protection funding if a county fails to meet state standards.
"We have language that calls on counties to improve their child protection work," said Sen. Kathy Sheran, DFL-Mankato, who served on Dayton's task force. "Counties can't just take advantage of the new money and redirect it to other areas."
Staff writers Patrick Condon and Abby Simons contributed to this report.