Our world is filled with complicated problems — many of which we Minnesotans can't do much about.
But how cruelly, and for how long, children will be allowed to be abused, beaten and neglected in our midst before someone puts a stop to it — that is a decision we, and only we, can and must make.
A few weeks back, we got a fresh reminder of just what Minnesotans have too long decided to put up with.
On Nov. 10, the Minnesota Supreme Court unanimously revived a wrongful-death lawsuit against Pope County and three of its child protection workers. The litigation concerns the child protection system's failure to protect Eric Dean, a 4-year-old Starbuck boy who was murdered by his father's girlfriend in February 2013.
No meaningful action to rescue this child had been taken despite child protection officials receiving some 15 reports in 2011 and 2012 that the boy was being mistreated, including evidence of broken bones, bites, bruises and more.
The blind eye turned toward little Eric's torment was the central narrative of "The boy they couldn't save," a powerful Star Tribune series in 2014. Reporter Brandon Stahl's stories documented scores of deaths and critical injuries among Minnesota children known to child protection and revealed "the failings of a system built to protect Minnesota's most vulnerable children," in which reports of maltreatment "often go uninvestigated and don't get referred to police." The revelations inspired then-Gov. Mark Dayton to appoint a distinguished task force to recommend reforms.
Consider this a warning that not enough has changed: Eight years after the 4-year-old's death, the state Supreme Court has found it necessary to speak up for Eric Dean — because, once again, no one else would.
The woman who brutalized and finally killed Eric was convicted of murder back in 2014 and sentenced to life in prison. But the system that looked the other way as it happened had, until last month, excused itself for not stopping her.
Both a district court and the state Court of Appeals had, over the course of several years, thrown out a lawsuit brought by Eric's relatives alleging official negligence in responding to reports of the child's maltreatment. Those courts ruled that a sweeping form of sovereign immunity protects the government and its employees from liability for inaction in such a situation.
Supreme Court Justice Paul Thissen, writing last month for a unanimous state Supreme Court, saw it differently. He ruled that the Legislature, in statutes defining responsibilities regarding reports of child abuse, specifically provided that "child protection workers ... are liable for all their conduct when they are not 'acting in good faith and exercising due care ... .'" By "the Legislature's conscious design," he added, child protection officials face broader liability than exists "under our common law doctrine of official immunity ... ."
The ruling sends the case back to district court, where the suit can proceed, perhaps with a trial.
Advocates for children are heartened by this modest step to "stiffen accountability" in the words of Rich Gehrman, executive director of Safe Passage for Children of Minnesota, a nonprofit watchdog group. They hope the ruling may spark renewed public interest in the perils Minnesota kids face.
Those dangers, truth be told, exist not so much because of spectacular failures in particular cases like the Dean tragedy, but because of a system that deliberately persists in many of the same inadequately "stiff," overly tolerant practices that existed long before the Dean case came to light and the Dayton task force was empaneled.
The high court's Nov. 10 ruling was brought to my attention by former Minnesota Chief Justice Kathleen Blatz. She has been a champion for abused children for decades; I covered her efforts in this cause 20-some years ago when, as chief justice, Blatz pressed for opening then-secret child protection legal proceedings to the press and public. The idea was that too much secrecy prevented the broader community from seeing whether children were being sufficiently protected in our state.
While opponents of openness back then said they were worried about sensational media attention, Blatz and others hoped that if the public could see what was happening to too many Minnesota children — and how many "second chances," or 15th chances, the system was giving some of their abusers — well, something might change.
In fact, it wasn't until Stahl's 2014 series that the press did much to expose the realities of child protection. And that exposure, as noted, mainly produced a task force.
It was, however, an able task force — both Blatz and Gehrman were on it — and it issued dozens of tough-minded recommendations, having declared in its report that Minnesota child protection had adopted a "primary focus" on "family engagement" that sometimes was "at odds with protecting children."
There has been some reform in the years since, Gehrman acknowledges, in particular the use of statewide standards for "screening in" abuse reports for scrutiny.
But many of the Dayton task force recommendations have not been implemented, Gehrman and Blatz both say. "The reforms envisioned five years ago have stalled," as Gehrman and other advocates for change wrote on these pages in April 2020.
Above all, the panel's call for a "single-track" system in which essentially every report of a mistreated child would be vigorously looked into has not been heeded. Instead the system continues to emphasize what's called the "family assessment" approach, in which families being assessed often are given advance notice of visits and the "preferred practice" is "to interview children with the parents present," among other practices Gehrman says "are not consistent with the mission of child protection."
Gehrman says 13 other states have ended or suspended such approaches, largely out of concerns for child safety.
In Minnesota, children continue to die from maltreatment at a rate of roughly one a month, Gehrman reports.
Make no mistake: Child protection decisions are difficult. The authority to come between a parent and child is a fearsome governmental power that must be wielded with care. Racial disparities that sadly appear in child protection cases, as in so many other measures of social well-being, complicate the issues.
But children simply cannot stand up for themselves.
"There is a lot more we can do to strengthen families so they don't need child protection services," Gehrman says. "But we have been so focused on making parents comfortable that we are not protecting children."
Perhaps the state Supreme Court's new ruling offers another opportunity to reconsider that balance.