Want to fix MN child protection? Take abuse seriously

Gov. Mark Dayton and his human services commissioner yesterday announced changes to the state’s child protection system following a Star Tribune investigation into the death of Eric Dean, 4-year-old Starbuck boy who was beaten to death by his stepmother.

A team of experts will constitute a rapid-deployment force to help burdened social workers work through difficult cases. And a task force will look at the overall system.

It’s a good first step but it also reinforces two things: (1) If the Star Tribune’s Brandon Stahl hadn’t doggedly pursued the system that watched as a 4-year-old died, it’s unlikely there’d have been a news conference yesterday and (2) If people in the system had listened to what experts were trying to tell them, there wouldn’t have been any need for Brandon Stahl to doggedly pursue the system that watched a 4-year-old die.

Stahl’s story in today’s Star Tribune contains several quotes that, while not as intense as a picture of a smiling 4-year-old with welts, show a deeper problem.

Some who have criticized the child protection system say Dayton’s actions are the first positive steps they have seen in years. Dr. Lisa Hollensteiner, an Edina emergency room physician for 26 years, said she has become frustrated that abuse that she’s required to report often fails to prompt action.

Dayton read a letter Hollensteiner sent to the Star Tribune in which she said her heart sinks when she makes abuse reports, because as a trained professional, she should be taken seriously.

In a Sept. 18 article about the Adrian Peterson case, Hennepin County Attorney Mike Freeman said that if his agency received “any credible concerns” about Peterson’s child, it would respond. On Friday, the county did indeed seek a protection order.

But I wish I had a fuller sense of confidence in child-protection efforts. As an emergency-department physician, I am a mandated reporter for concerns of child abuse. When I make a report, however, my heart sinks, because my perception is that the large majority of the cases are screened out or not accepted.

Facts support my perception: Twenty-nine percent of cases reported in Minnesota are accepted for further review, vs. 62 percent nationwide. Why? My partners and I have years of training and medical experience, and when we report concern about a child’s well-being, it should be taken seriously.

With recent heightened public attention to this issue, now is the time to make changes. Counties should have standard guidelines for what meets criteria for further investigation, rather than having widely variant practices.

Strengthen county programs by increasing state funding, which is currently only about 15 percent of the county budgets. Hopefully, all these issues can be addressed in the next legislative session.

Minnesota’s child protection system is county run. Like so many other programs left to the counties, the results can vary from county to county, as anyone who’s ever navigated the mental health system knows only too well.

Part of that is thanks to the Legislature, which provides funding directly to the counties, part of it is philosophical differences among counties. The state has cut $36 million (about 5 minutes worth of military action against Syria last night, for the record) to the system in the last 10 years, almost as if it it didn’t think it would be missed.

In Stahl’s investigation, county officials have certainly sounded like professionals who doggedly protected their turf.

State lawmakers infringed on that turf, too, when they passed a law that bars counties from considering past child abuse reports when considering new ones. In the aftermath of Eric Dean’s murder, officials said they’ll try to repeal the law. But that’s only part of the problem. When it proposed it, the Department of Human Services said it simply codified practices that were already in use. The law can be gutted, but can the practices?

It appears so simple, and yet a comment on the Star Tribune’s story today peels some of the issues away:

Years ago I supervised child protection and child welfare in a Minnesota county. It was just after the mandatory reporting laws went into effect. We were flooded by child abuse and neglect reports with no appreciable increase in staffing.

By necessity we had to triage and sort out which to investigate. An advisory group of law enforcement and medical personnel was set up to assist. Sometimes they did. Sometimes they wagged a finger and blamed our social workers. At the same time we were pursuing a policy of family preservation to stem the tide of out of home placements.

We were constantly on the horns of dilemmas. If we swooped in too soon to place a child in protective custody and foster care we were the big bad government breaking up families. If we didn’t and something bad happened, then we were negligent.

To those pounding their chests and saying “never again”, ask yourselves if the incidence of child abuse will really change if all we do is scapegoat.

There is no silver bullet. There are few, if any, government workers who set out to do a bad job or intentionally neglect their duties. Try as we might there will be no perfect answer.

Unfortunately, I fear, there are more Eric Deans out there in the future. That said, nothing should keep us from marshaling the effort to prevent them. Start with analyzing the processes, strengthen the weak points, clarify expectations, and, you, dear citizen, provide the resources.

Finally, the spotlight on the Adrian Peterson situation has raised the ugly specter of how many think that it is OK to beat a child and cause injury because that was the way they were raised.

To all those screaming for the commissioner’s or governor’s head on this matter, look in the mirror. We know children can be raised without spanking or spoiling.

The governor and the human services commissioner have set up a task force to investigate what changes can be made in the system to prevent this from happening again. The commissioner will chair it. The co-chair will be Ramsey County commissioner Toni Carter, who defended the counties’ performance on the issue in a recent op-ed.

The barometer of whether any of this makes any difference should be when a 26-year veteran ER physician’s heart doesn’t sink when she sends a report of potential child abuse into the system.

Also when a picture of a dead 4-year-old isn’t what gets those responsible to sit up straight.