A statewide child abuse hotline, new rules to reduce racial disparities among foster children and a wide-ranging review of how Minnesota spends its child protection money are among the proposals state legislators will begin considering when they convene next week.
Altogether, at least nine legislative proposals have emerged in recent weeks to address widespread failures in Minnesota's child protection system that were identified in a 2023 Star Tribune investigation.
The bills received their first public airing at Friday's meeting of the bipartisan Legislative Task Force on Child Protection, which met for the third time in three months to address problems identified by the Star Tribune. Many task force members did not attend the session, including all of the Republicans. Calls to spokespeople for the Republican caucus were not returned.
The series revealed hundreds of children are harmed each year when county officials return them to parents who have not addressed problems that prompted the removal of their children to foster care.
Assistant Majority Leader Mary Kunesh, a Democratic senator from New Brighton, said she thinks the state should hire a consultant this summer with "national expertise in transforming child welfare systems" to help overhaul Minnesota's system. The consultant would be required to submit a final report by March 25, 2025. The assessment would cost an estimated $250,000.
Kunesh said a preliminary review shows that Minnesota failed to spend more than $55 million in federal money on services aimed at preventing abuse and neglect since the funds became available in 2018. Kunesh said only three other states are sitting on more unused funds.
"It's really important that there be independent and external oversight to ensure our state agency is performing at its highest capacity," Kunesh said.
Minnesota is one of just nine states in which counties control the delivery of child protection services. The state Department of Human Services (DHS) provides oversight.
Task force members reviewed a report from a national child welfare consulting firm that shows Minnesota's spending on child protection services is out of step with the rest of the nation, with counties spending just 2% of available federal funds on programs and services aimed at curbing abuse and neglect.
On average, other states spend 40% of their funds on such services, according to the review by The Stephen Group of New Hampshire.
The review also showed that Minnesota spends far too much on administrative costs and caseworker visits.
"It is really important you start asking questions about how to make sure you maximize all of the available federal dollars," said John Stephen, CEO of The Stephen Group. "There is a lot of opportunity there for the state of Minnesota."
Senate President Bobby Joe Champion, a Democrat from Minneapolis and a task force member, told legislators that Minnesota needs to pass the African American Family Preservation Act to address practices that result in the disproportionate removal of Black children from their parents.
Attorney Kelis Houston, who advocated on behalf of children as a guardian ad litem for several years, told legislators that "institutional racism" is responsible for the fact that 26% of children in foster care are Black, even though those kids make up just 10% of the child protection population.
"The worst thing Minnesota can do is keep doubling down on its failed approach," said Houston, adding that tragedies continue to occur because caseworkers are overwhelmed by "trivial cases."
The Star Tribune's investigation found that since 2012, at least 86 children died from maltreatment after Minnesota's child protection system failed to protect them from caregivers with a history of abuse or neglect. Another 11 children died from suicide after a child protection case was filed on their behalf, including a 6-year-old girl.
Task force members also discussed weaknesses in the way counties investigate deaths linked to child abuse.
Counties are supposed to file a child mortality report every time a child dies from maltreatment or if the child dies from homicide, suicide, an accident or undetermined causes. The reports are supposed to help guide improvements to child protection.
But a Star Tribune survey of more than two dozen counties in 2023 showed that compliance is spotty. Some counties failed to conduct required reviews while others take years to complete them.
Rep. Dave Pinto, DFL-St. Paul and co-chair of the task force, said the current system is "pretty confusing" and too focused on whether social services complied with existing rules instead of whether changes in policy or practices might have led to a different outcome.
"It's something we really want to get right," Pinto said.
Mark Hudson, a Minnesota physician who has been involved in mortality reviews for more than a decade, told panel members that the reviews should more often include the perspective of medical workers, law enforcement members and people who are legally required to report suspected abuse or neglect.
"Transparency is lacking now," said Hudson, medical director of the Midwest Children's Resource Center in Minneapolis.