A new state report finalized Wednesday offered up over 90 recommendations to overhaul Minnesota’s child protection system in the wake of 4-year-old Eric Dean’s tragic death at the hands of his stepmother. To the credit of the task force’s 26 members, who spent months working on this, the report doesn’t end with a “mission accomplished.” Instead it closes with a laudable reality check:
“We believe that the recommendations contained in this report are just a foundation,’’ the report concludes. “Much work lies ahead. Transforming our system is a multiyear project and only with resources and continued focus will our children and families be safe, supported and strong.’’
This is exactly the right frame of mind with which to approach the monumental task of strengthening the complex system of protections for abused and neglected Minnesota children. The heart-wrenching Star Tribune investigation of Eric’s death, which came in 2013 despite repeated reports of suspected abuse, spurred Gov. Mark Dayton, lawmakers and Human Services Commissioner Lucinda Jesson to swiftly take action. Two early policy changes from the task force, which was convened after the newspaper’s series, have already been made a reality. One allows officials to consider previously rejected reports of abuse when a new one occurs. The other makes child safety the system’s chief concern — a change from previous policy where the priority put on keeping families together sometimes was at odds with child protection.
The real challenges still lie ahead. The report’s list of recommended changes is sensible, but it is also lengthy. And it may meet resistance in some quarters, because more families may face scrutiny or intervention. Among other reforms, the task force called for investigating more cases, better coordination with law enforcement, improved training for case workers and stronger state oversight of counties, whose staff is on the front lines of the child protection system.
Implementing these many reforms across the state will require strong continued leadership by Jesson to enforce changes requiring more transparency, more teamwork, and more scrutiny of suspected abuse or neglect cases. Lawmakers also need to follow through. Additional staff and resources are required to make these changes a reality. The Legislature must also ensure that funds are available to improve services and outreach to at-risk families to prevent abuse from happening. Bolstering mental health services, for children in particular, would be helpful. Until these “front-end changes” are made, “we will never get our arms around this,’’ Jesson said Wednesday.
Lawmakers should also give strong consideration to setting up independent evaluation of how the reforms are unfolding. The changes called for are a solid start. But objective measurement of progress will help ensure that Minnesotan has a system that truly puts children’s safety first.