A state task force on Monday approved more than 100 reforms that, if fully implemented, would represent a complete overhaul of how Minnesota protects children from abuse and neglect.
The task force urged counties and the state to spend more on child protection, to hire more social workers and improve their training. Those workers need to open more cases, gather more information about families and provide better services, the task force said. In addition, child protection agencies and the state need to be more transparent so that the public knows whether the proposed reforms are succeeding.
Gov. Mark Dayton formed the task force in September following the Star Tribune’s reporting on child protection failures, including how Pope County handled the case of Eric Dean. The 4-year-old’s caregivers reported suspected maltreatment at least 15 times, including when he had bite marks on his face and bruises all over his body. Pope County child protection workers investigated only one of the reports before the boy was murdered by his stepmother in 2013.
“Let’s pray that the little children like Eric Dean who had to suffer so terribly will see from up above some measure of justice that will result from their terror, and prevent that from happening to other Eric Deans in the months and years ahead,” Dayton said after the task force vote.
The governor has already signed the task force’s first two recommendations. The first made the safety of a child the “paramount concern” ahead of preserving the family. The second allows child protection workers to consider previously rejected reports when deciding how to respond to a new one.
The most contentious issue for the task force involved an alternative child protection response known as family assessment, where social workers do not determine whether a child was maltreated and who was responsible. The task force made clear that high-risk abuse reports should never be funneled to family assessment. That would be a sweeping reversal of Minnesota’s current practice.
In the long term, the task force wants to phase out that two-track system in Minnesota, making it so that in all cases facts are gathered about whether a child was abused.
“These reforms are a paradigm shift,” said Lucinda Jesson, commissioner of the state Department of Human Services, which supervises child protection. “That paradigm shift will impact, at the end of the day, I think, all of the different parts of our child protection system.”
Other recommendations include better funding for abuse prevention programs, and the creation of a Child Protection Training Academy, which all new workers must complete before taking on cases of children at high risk for more abuse. And no child protection worker should have a caseload of more than 10 children, the task force said.
The task force wants the Legislature to expand the definition of corporal punishment so that more cases are opened. That issue saw the lone conflict of the day.
Some members on the task force wanted child protection to investigate when a child is spanked hard enough to cause bruising.
“We’re talking about an injury here,” said Dr. Mark Hudson, medical director of the Midwest Children’s Resource Center. “We’re not talking about corporal punishment.”
Others argued that those cases should prompt a child protection response, but not an investigation. Ultimately, the majority of the task force said there should be an investigation when children under 3 are bruised by spanking.
Rep. Joe Mullery, DFL-Minneapolis, disagreed, saying community leaders in his district did not support it. He was the lone member to vote against the task force’s recommendations.
The task force also passed recommendations seeking to reduce racial disparities in child protection, improve the foster care system and increase oversight of child protection by DHS and the Minnesota Office of Ombudsperson for Families.
Child protection agencies also need to start tracking the outcomes for children in the system, the task force said, and those outcomes should be made public.
Child protection, said former Minnesota Supreme Court Justice Kathleen Blatz, has been too “opaque.”
“And, as a sad result, they don’t have sufficient funding,” she said.
The governor is proposing an additional $52 million for child protection in his budget.
After the vote, Mullery said it’s likely too late this session to implement some of the reforms. The deadline for policy-related bills was last week, and he noted that a bill currently going through the Legislature carrying some of the task force’s initial recommendations barely passed a committee. That bill already has numerous proposed reforms, including requiring that law enforcement be notified of all child abuse reports and mandating that social workers factor in a child’s entire case history when evaluating an abuse report.
Jesson said her agency will develop a plan by next month on how to implement the reforms. She said some of the reforms will likely need to be considered by the Legislature next year.