It’s been nine months since the Star Tribune’s “The boy they couldn’t save” investigation was published. But neither the outrage the story inspired, nor the heartbreak generated by the photo of little Eric Dean smiling bravely despite ongoing abuse that would kill him, has faded in Minnesota.
The story, part of series detailing alarming weaknesses in the state’s child protection system, shocked the state and set in motion a gubernatorial task force, policy changes at human services agencies and, finally, new laws to prevent more children from suffering Eric’s fate. In a legislative session where so much was left undone at the finish, lawmakers took seriously their obligation to act after it became clear that human services officials were repeatedly warned of the danger that Eric was in. The 4-year-old from Pope County suffered bites and beatings and died in 2013; his stepmom was convicted of his murder.
State officials have already launched sensible policy changes recommended by the task force, such as reviewing previous allegations of abuse when considering how to handle a new report. More reforms recommended by the task force passed both the Republican-controlled House and DFL-controlled Senate with broad support and were signed by Gov. Mark Dayton earlier this month.
These actions will provide $52 million to expand and improve child abuse investigations — much of it through hiring additional staff and better training. Stronger state oversight of county workers is also required. So is more vigorous coordination with law enforcement. Police will now see all abuse reports and prosecutors will be required to review the case if a family rejects child protection services.
Other significant steps include tracking outcomes for children who come into the system and requiring agencies to disclose more information to the public when a child dies or is seriously harmed. Both steps will improve accountability. The information will help determine if the new reforms are working and whether additional changes are needed.
“Leaps and bounds ahead of where we were,’’ is how Rich Gehrman of Safe Passage for Children of Minnesota summed up the overhaul.
But getting new policies and laws pointed in the right direction is only one part of making change a reality. The second and often most difficult step is implementation, which is just getting underway. The unprecedented scope of these reforms adds to the complexity of this monumental task. “The next six to nine months will tell a lot,’’ Gehrman said.
Continued leadership from Gov. Mark Dayton and Department of Human Services Commissioner Lucinda Jesson will be crucial in the months ahead. Counties especially need to be willing partners. It’s now time to buckle down and carry out the meaningful, potentially lifesaving reforms that Minnesota kids deserve.