A bipartisan group of state lawmakers on Wednesday unveiled sweeping legislation that would reform the state’s child protection laws, but they say there’s still plenty of work to be done.

House and Senate legislators released an 11-point plan that includes clarifying existing law mandating that reports must be referred to law enforcement, or changing current policy that focuses on keeping families intact, rather than ensuring children are safe.

The legislation stems from preliminary recommendations by the Governor’s Task Force on the Protection of Children, launched after Star Tribune reports on the death of 4-year-old Eric Dean, who was beaten to death despite 15 reports about his welfare to Pope County child protection.

Sen. Kathy Sheran, DFL-Mankato, said the legislation is triggered in part by the number of child abuse cases like Eric’s that were screened out by child protection workers “and our inability to track the rationale for that.”

Part of it, Sheran said, could be the system simply going too far in maintaining the family structure rather than making sure kids are out of harm’s way—a key readjustment in the bills.

“We can talk about our angst and anxiety we feel when we read these reports, but I think you can really measure our reaction in these efforts we are making to reform.” she said.

The authors of the House and Senate bills, who served on the task force, say the expect to draft more legislation once the Task Force’s final report is released. For instance, counties across Minnesota are expected to pay half the cost of child protection, despite the differences in property tax incomes, leading to disparate resources for handling cases. The task force is expected to finish a full study on the financial impact of their suggested reforms. Sen. Julie Rosen, R-Fairmont, said the Task Force’s full recommendations will be the result of “some very honest, true, transparent discussions...difficult decisions.” 

Rep. Joe Mullery, DFL-Minneapolis who co-authored the legislation, said he intends to ask Gov. Mark Dayton to continue the task force for another year.

“Until next year, we are not going to have this issue resolved,” he said. “This is our future. I think this task force needs to continue but we’ll continue working hard to try to get as much passed this year as possible.”

The bill’s chief House author, Rep. Ron Kresha, R-Little Falls, said sending every report to law enforcement likely will not tax state resources, since multiple counties already have the same policy.

Writing it into law, he said, would make certain that it could be replicated throughout the state.
“A lot of this already has to happen,” he said. “When I talk to law enforcement and ask what they think about this, the responses  I got from the two law enforcement agencies I talked to were ‘We’re already doing this in a lot of cases. We investigate every 911 call, you know what? We can take 10 minutes for the well-being of our kids.’ There isn’t this enormous amount of information that’s going to be sent forward, it’s just ensuring that the intent of statute is carried out.”

Kresha said the legislation isn’t intended to be a crackdown, rather than simply a way to ensure that no more children fall through the cracks.

“I think too often we look for a scapegoat, but quite frankly when you look at..how many different interactions we have with these families, a lot of times we as a society have to look in the mirror,” Kresha said. “Because no matter what happens, all of this is voluntary until the court steps in. We need these families to know we’re there to work with them and we’re not adversarial.”

Photo: From left, Rep. Jeff Backer, R-Browns Valley, who represents the district where Eric Dean lived, Rep. Ron Kresha, Sen. Julie Rosen, Sen. Kathy Sheran, Rep. Joe Mullery.