Seeking a stronger safety net for kids

ST. PAUL -- Gov. Mark Dayton announced steps Monday to increase state scrutiny of Minnesota's child-protection system and offer assistance to county social workers deciding whether to pursue abuse allegations.

ST. PAUL -- Gov. Mark Dayton announced steps Monday to increase state scrutiny of Minnesota’s child-protection system and offer assistance to county social workers deciding whether to pursue abuse allegations.

Dayton also said he’ll appoint a task force to review the system and make initial recommendations for change by the end of the year.

The state’s child-protection system ranks high nationally by some measures, the governor said at a news conference Monday, but “Minnesota falls short of the norm in its follow-through on suspected and documented cases of child abuse.” He cited figures from 2012 indicating 29 percent of cases reported in Minnesota were accepted for further review, compared with 62 percent nationwide.

Seventeen children in Minnesota’s child-protection system died in 2013, according to the Department of Human Services.

The first part of Dayton’s short-term fix was announced two weeks ago by Department of Human Services Commissioner Lucinda Jesson: monthly random audits of county “screening” decisions that determine whether abuse reports are investigated.


The first such review will start early next month and consider at least 240 county decisions in September, said Jesson. Summary information from the monthly audits will be released publicly, Jesson said.

Department of Human Services will intervene immediately with county authorities if decisions are found that didn’t follow state protocols, Jesson said.

The action comes in response to news reports last month in the Minneapolis-based Star Tribune about the death of a 4-year-old Pope County boy who had been the subject of 15 maltreatment reports, only one of which was investigated.

Dayton said the image of the boy, Eric Dean, smiling despite a visible injury to his face “will haunt me for a long time.”

Minnesota is one of 12 states in which the child-protection system is supervised by state officials but administered at the county level, Jesson said. Dayton said that means any problems would likely be communicated to county boards, which have the ultimate authority over child-protection workers in their jurisdictions.

The second immediate step will be formation of a “rapid consultation system” staffed by counties and the state Department of Human Services to offer advice to social workers who need assistance making decisions on cases.

“We welcome the additional scrutiny to ensure that the appropriate decisions are being made,” said Toni Carter, a Ramsey County commissioner and president of the Association of Minnesota Counties. Carter will serve as co-chair of Dayton’s task force along with Jesson.

A story published Monday in the Chronicle of Social Change, which tracks child welfare issues nationwide, alleges that Department of Human Services expectations for counties might be playing into the problem.


The story quotes a former child-protection supervisor for Hennepin County saying the Department of Human Services set targets for counties to refer 70 percent of their cases to family assessment rather than opening an investigation.

Jesson denied Monday there were any such targets.

The state Department of Human Services establishes protocols for counties, but “we don’t establish percentages around that,” Jesson said. “There’s no quota.”

The governor’s new task force, made up of lawmakers, county representatives and others involved in the child-protection system, is to make recommendations on a variety of issues including the appropriateness of screening decisions, the effectiveness of current laws and policies, accountability measures, and whether the system has adequate resources.

“I’ve heard anecdotally in the last several years from individual county workers that they are underfunded and understaffed,” Dayton said.

Initial recommendations are due by Dec. 31, with final recommendations by March 31, 2015.

Sen. Michelle Benson, the ranking Republican on the state Senate Health, Human Services and Housing committee, said she supports the Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party governor’s call for additional scrutiny of the child-protection system, calling it an issue that transcends politics.

Some lawmakers have indicated they’d support a change in law to allow county officials to consider prior screened-out abuse reports when deciding whether to pursue a new one.


Dayton said that law will be reviewed but that it wasn’t responsible for Eric Dean’s death. “I think this is a failure of people, not of the legislation.”

An independent review panel will look into Eric Dean’s death and issue findings. Jesson said Monday that she didn’t know whether the findings would be made public. “Clearly, things happened here that should not have happened,” she said of the Dean case.

The Pioneer Press is a media partner with Forum News Service.

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