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Tragedy simply awful; solution is complex

ST. PAUL — The death of 4-year-old Eric Dean in west-central Minnesota is producing state legislative discussions about how to improve child abuse investigations.

“There has been a light shining onto the child protection system in our state,” Human Services Commissioner Lucinda Jesson told a state Senate committee Monday about the months since Dean's death became a statewide news story. “It should be on the top of the front page, the most emailed story. It should cause us to question what we can do better.”

But senators' questions made it clear that the solution to improving the Minnesota child abuse prevention system would not be simple.

Sens. Tony Lourey, D-Kerrick, and Jeff Hayden, D-Minneapolis, said they are concerned about some proposals, such as one that would require law enforcement officials to get involved after many child abuse reports.

Lourey wondered if county social services officials could “call law enforcement and go on a fishing expedition” for family information.

Hayden, who is black, said people with his ethnic background and others in his Minneapolis community are not comfortable with police and he wanted more information before backing anything that could bring law enforcement into child abuse cases unless it was needed.

The issue arose after Eric Dean died Feb. 28, 2013. Last May, Amanda Peltier of Starbuck was convicted of the boy's death. She received a life sentence, but will be eligible for parole in 30 years.

Peltier was caring for Eric at her Starbuck home in February 2013, when police say she became upset with the boy and launched him across a room.

It became a statewide story when the Star Tribune of Minneapolis reported there had been 15 reports that Peltier had abused children.

Gov. Mark Dayton created a task force to look into how the state and its counties handle child abuse reports and investigations. The Senate committee heard about the first task force recommendations.

Jesson said that many Minnesota children are saved by the state system, but “our system is failing some children, and frankly too many children.”

Kathy Johnson, who heads the Kittson County social services office, said that the most important job is to protect children, but those charged with that responsibility are overworked. Social workers “often do not have the time to meet the needs of their families,” she said.

The task force is looking into whether state law should limit how many children each worker can handle, she added.

Among the task force recommendations, Johnson said, is to increase child protection training for social workers. Another idea is to mandate training for many professionals, such as teachers and police, required by state law to report suspected child abuse.

People testifying to the committee said that counties across the state vary greatly in how they deal with child abuse. It is not clear when child abuse reports should be investigated.

“The challenges in greater Minnesota are different, often, than they are in the metro,” Jesson said.

Committee members also learned that counties pay more than half of the cost for state-mandated child abuse services.

Jesson said that one of the problems in reforming the child abuse system is that it “is a system that has been cloaked by law by a lot of secrecy.”

With the commissioner said that secrecy is needed to protect families, it makes looking into how the system is performing much more difficult.

Don Davis
Don Davis has been the Forum Communications Minnesota Capitol Bureau chief since 2001, covering state government and politics for two dozen newspapers in the state. Don also blogs at Capital Chatter on Areavoices.
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