When legislators don’t know what they’re doing

If we ever needed a reminder about the value of a newspaper, we need only look at the reporting in the last few week of Brandon Stahl of the Star Tribune, who uncovered a combination of apparent incompetence and faulty legislation in the state’s child abuse reporting system that left Eric Dean, 4, dead in Pope County.

Just a week later, the spotlight on the case is forcing legislators to vow to change a law they voted for in May which prevents child protection agencies from using prior reports of maltreatment.

Nine of 15 abuse reports — mostly from teachers and day-care providers — were closed out by the county workers without investigation. Nobody knows exactly why because the county isn’t talking much and to the extent it is, it’s blaming the system.

But some lawmakers who voted for the bill are. And they’ve revealed the dirty little secret of legislating.

Four legislators told the Star Tribune on Monday they did not know what they were voting for in May.

Say what?

The language on what to do with screened-out abuse reports was introduced by DHS, Sullivan Sutton said, which was later wrapped into an omnibus bill that included dozens of new laws. “A screened-out report must not be used for any purpose other than making an offer of social services to the subjects of the screened-out report,” the law says. DHS pushed for the change to make the law consistent with its September 2012 guidance that counties should not consider any prior maltreatment history when considering what to do with a new report.

Sen. Sheran said DHS’ guidance makes no sense. Still, as chair of the Senate Health, Human Services and Housing Committee, Sheran sponsored the omnibus bill that restricted use of prior abuse reports, which she said she didn’t realize and now wants changed.

Rep. Tina Liebling, DFL-Rochester, who sponsored the House version of the omnibus bill, said she thought she was strengthening child protection by helping pass another bill that required counties to keep records of screened-out calls for a year.

“The point of what we changed was to do the opposite [of the DHS bill],” Liebling said.

Perhaps part of the problem is the practice of taking individual bills and throwing them in a single giant stew — an omnibus bill — where it’s easier for the provisions to be lost to legislators, who often wait until the last minute of a legislative session to rush bills through against a deadline.

No matter. The effect was the same as child protection workers who didn’t see a pattern in the 15 reports of abuse of the young man who was allegedly beaten to death by his stepmother.