New study of maltreatment deaths critical of Minnesota’s child welfare system

A new study by a nonprofit advocacy group says the deaths of dozens of children in Minnesota over the last decade were preventable and the result of a “child welfare philosophy” in the state that regularly compromises child safety.

Safe Passage for Children, a citizens’ group advocating for changes to Minnesota’s child welfare system, reviewed cases involving 88 child deaths over the last eight years.

Its year-long review of cases — which was aided by former child protection workers, court officers, and medical experts — relied on records from individual counties, the Minnesota Department of Human Services (DHS), and media reports.

The report explains that the 88 deaths it analyzed are only a portion, 55%, of the total child maltreatment fatalities from October 2014 to June 2022. 

Autumn Hallow

Among the stories of children highlighted in the study, Safe Passage for Children cited 5 INVESTIGATES reporting on the 2020 death of Autumn Hallow in Sherburne County.

Autumn’s father and stepmother were later convicted of starving and torturing the 8-year-old girl before she was found dead in a bathtub at the couple’s apartment.

A review of public records, medical reports, photos, and recordings obtained by 5 INVESTIGATES shows authorities were aware of abuse allegations in the same household going back more than a year before Autumn was killed.

“Overall the Autumn Hallow case presents a picture of rather chilling indifference by all the authorities involved,” authors of the study concluded.

Major Findings

In its review of the 88 child deaths, Safe Passage for Children found about 75% of the victims were 3 years old or younger. 

Thirty-seven of those children were less than a year old.

The fatalities involved more Black and Native American children than any other racial group.

“There is consensus among researchers that poverty is the most important single driver of child maltreatment,” the report said. “Preventing child fatalities and reducing racial disproportionality in child welfare both depend on significantly relieving the economic strains… and doing so as early as possible in the lives of child maltreatment victims.”

The study is also critical of the increasing use of what is known as “Family Assessment” — an alternative approach to investigating reports of maltreatment in Minnesota with an emphasis on keeping biological families intact.

“These practices include giving caregivers advance notice of the initial child protection caseworker visit, and interviewing children in the presence of caregivers,” the report said. 

Calls for Transparency, Collaboration

Safe Passage for Children says its study was limited because DHS refused to share all of the data associated with the children who died.

While DHS disclosed the total number of fatalities, the study’s authors said the agency did not provide the names of any children who were not already identified in media reports.

In their final recommendations, the report’s authors call on DHS to provide details on all child maltreatment fatalities on the agency’s “dashboard report.”

“Progress also depends on the willingness of elected officials to appropriate the resources needed to effectively protect children and to hold institutions accountable for outcomes,” the report said.

In a statement, DHS said it works with stakeholders across the child welfare system to ensure the safety of children.

“Each tragedy is devastating and we will continue to work alongside advocates throughout the state, including Safe Passage for Children of Minnesota, partners and families to ensure children are safe and well cared for in our state,” the agency added.

Other recommendations include better collaboration among Public Health Nurses, caseworkers, and county child welfare agencies.

“The erosion in professional norms that has gradually caused human services entities to tolerate the current level of neglect and physical abuse of children has developed over the course of decades,” the report concluded. 

“A concerted effort by a community of professionals will be required to restore standards that were once taken for granted, and to place appropriate limits on the ability of adults in a child’s life to harm them.”

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