The state agency that oversees child protection in Minnesota has named a new top official to run that division, following a series of highly publicized breakdowns in the system for protecting children from abuse and neglect.

James Koppel, a veteran state health official and longtime child welfare advocate, has been named assistant commissioner for Children and Family Services for the state Department of Human Services, where he will oversee efforts to reform child protection. Koppel will replace Erin Sullivan Sutton, who has served in the position since 2010 and is moving to a new role in the department, according to an internal memo obtained by the Star Tribune.

In an interview, Koppel said he will review all aspects of Minnesota's child protection system, including the state's controversial methods of responding to abuse and neglect allegations.

"We have so many children die in this system — and that's the headline — but there are many other things that happen to children in this state that never should happen to any child at any time," said Koppel, who said he was contacted about the job last week by DHS Commissioner Lucinda Jesson.

The appointment of Koppel, who starts Dec. 17, comes as a state task force also weighs changes to the system.

A recent Star Tribune investigation found that county agencies fail to provide child protection in nearly three-quarters of abuse reports in the state. Agencies often fail to investigate reports of abuse, enabling the maltreatment to continue. Fifty-six children have died of maltreatment since 2005, despite counties knowing that the child was at risk or the caretaker was dangerous, records show.

Among the children who died was 4-year-old Eric Dean, who was reported to Pope County child protection 15 times before he was murdered by his stepmother. Gov. Mark Dayton called the county's handling of Eric's case a "colossal failure" and appointed a 26-member task force to address child-protection failures.

"It was clear they had to do something to change the status quo," said Denise Graves, a guardian ad litem and former chairwoman of the Hennepin County citizens' review panel for child protection. "There were real shortcomings by the state and you have to deal with that at the top."

Child advocates have been harshly critical of the state's primary method for protecting children. Instead of punishing child abusers and removing the children, in many cases social workers offered services intended to strengthen families and keep them together. That program, known as "family assessment," began in the early 2000s and was supported by state officials who argued that parents are more likely to cooperate with social workers if the threat of punishment is removed.

Yet hundreds of child abuse cases were routed through family assessment even after children were reported to have been severely abused or abandoned. In many cases, parents turned down or failed social services and the cases were simply closed, resulting in the children suffering more abuse, the Star Tribune found.

With a résumé deep in advocacy work, Koppel is expected to bring political savvy to a role that involves navigating complicated county and state rules that govern child protection. As state director of the Children's Defense Fund, he helped craft Minnesota's influential approach to welfare reform and spearheaded improvements to children's health insurance coverage. In the early 1990s, he also headed a commission that laid the groundwork for MinnesotaCare, the state health insurance program for the working poor.

"His résumé fits the job well," said Rich Gehrman, executive director of Safe Passage for Children of Minnesota, a watchdog group for child welfare. "He certainly has the experience and he has the advantage of not being personally invested in what's come before."

Koppel said the family assessment model should be analyzed, but he cautioned against any quick decisions to eliminate it entirely. He suggested the problems with family assessments may lie with poor execution, not with the model itself.

"You have to look at the model in some detail," he said. "If the assessment is done, and the follow-up is not complete, and the family doesn't take the services and the situation fails, you have to look at all phases of that. … There are a lot of great processes out there that have failed because the processes haven't been followed."

In its memo, DHS said Sullivan Sutton will lead a new agency initiative devoted to housing. An attorney and social worker, Sullivan Sutton has worked for the department since 1987.

Staff writers Paul McEnroe and Brandon Stahl contributed to this story.

Chris Serres • 612-673-4308

Twitter: @chrisserres