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Dayton directs changes in child protection system

ST. PAUL — Minnesota's central social service agency will conduct random screenings of child-protection decisions made by county officials under measures ordered Monday by Gov. Mark Dayton.

In addition, a new consultation system staffed by state and county experts will be established as a sounding board for social workers looking into maltreatment allegations.

The executive actions announced by Dayton after an Aug. 31 Minneapolis Star Tribune story about 4-year-old Eric Dean, whose repeated abuse at the hands of his stepmother prompted little scrutiny despite 15 separate abuse reports lodged with Pope County social workers. Amanda Peltier was convicted this spring in Dean's death, but a state review of institutional failings is still in progress.

Dayton said a photo of Dean smiling through the wounds on his face "will haunt me for a long time."

State Department of Human Services Commissioner Lucinda Jesson said putting a second set of eyes on county decisions could prevent children from suffering more serious injuries or even death by catching cases that were wrongly closed without adequate investigation.


"While we save thousands of children, what we have seen is still far too many children fall through the cracks," Jesson said.

The random screenings of at least 240 decisions made this month will start immediately and look both at cases that led to probes and those that didn't. Random reviews will continue each month. In cases where the state agency disagrees with the previous decision, Jesson said her department will push county officials to reverse course, removing children from abusive environments if needed.

Minnesota is among a dozen states where the state supervises the child protection system but counties operate it.

Jesson will lead a new state task force of county officials, children's advocates, law enforcement and others to review policies and determine what additional changes are necessary. The group will report its preliminary recommendations to the 2015 Legislature, including whether there are adequate personnel and budgetary resources to keep up with caseloads.

Ramsey County Commissioner Toni Carter, president of the Association of Minnesota Counties, said the scrutiny and professional support are welcome.

"Protecting our children is not simply a county responsibility," Carter said. "It is one of the most important things — perhaps the most important thing — that we as a community can do."

Libby Bergman, executive director of the Minneapolis-based Family Enhancement Center, which focuses on child abuse prevention efforts, said more cases are being ruled out for intensive review than should be.

"It's financial," she said. "I know that the social workers I talk to everyday have a large caseload. They often feel overworked. One way to decrease the load without increasing cost is to rule out cases."


Bergman said she hopes the upcoming policy review also examines what happens after substantiated allegations of abuse lead to corrective action. She worries that many cases are closed without plans for sustained follow-up.

"Cases get closed prematurely. They look like they're on the right track," Bergman said. "Sadly, those are cases that may reopen in the future with more damage to the child and further abuse."

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