Bill proposes changing how child abuse, neglect investigations are handled in Minnesota

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Changes could be coming to Minnesota’s child protection system. A bill introduced this week at the Capitol would affect the way investigations are done.

Former Governor Mark Dayton launched an overhaul of the system following the death of Eric Dean in 2013. The 4-year-old died while in his stepmother’s care.

The Governor’s Task Force came up with more 90 recommendations to improve the way child protection cases are handled.

Five years later, advocates say there are two items that still need to be addressed.

“It’s frustrating,” said Rich Gehrman, executive director of Safe Passage for Children. “These are policy decisions that can be made, and the training and the guidelines can be changed relatively quickly.”

Gehrman was part of the Task Force, which called for children to be interviewed before, and separately, from a parent or legal guardian. It also suggested creating specific protocols for fact-finding.

“They’re both about making sure that you leave some space for children to tell you things that are going on in case they’re in some kind of trouble,” said Gehrman.

A bill introduced by Sen. Julie Rosen, R-Vernon Center, would make both items law.

SF3692 would prevent child protection agencies from giving caregivers a heads up when they’re visiting their home. It would also ensure children are interviewed separately and before the alleged perpetrator.

“If you give them advanced notice they can be coached and intimidated, coached in what to say, evidence could be destroyed,” said Gehrman.

According to Sen. Rosen, “It is quite prevalent.”

Her bill also creates fact-finding standards, which would dictate how information is gathered from the victim, alleged perpetrator and others involved. It also determines what information is gathered, including whether the child has been harmed in the past, the parents’ knowledge of child development, nurturing, competence, and how frequently there are behaviors that put a child at risk.

“Right now, they just have a phone call,” said Rosen. “A screening call is not going to give you the right amount of information to determine which track this case needs to go on.”

According to the Department of Human Services, that phone call is usually meant to set up a meeting, unless the child is in imminent danger.

Similar bills have been introduced in the past but did not move forward.

Recently, however, Hennepin County settled with a child advocacy group in federal court. The settlement agreement requires the county to start interviewing children separately.

Rosen hopes to hold a hearing on her proposed legislation in the coming weeks.

DHS Acting Assistant Commissioner for Children and Family Services Lisa Bayley declined our request for an interview. She said in a statement:

“The safety and well-being of children are at the core of Minnesota’s child protection system. Because this bill was just introduced yesterday, we are still in the process of analyzing its impact on children and families, and our county and tribal partners. We will continue to engage in discussion with stakeholders about possible impacts once we have reviewed the bill.”

Rep. Rena Moran, DFL-St. Paul, co-chairs the Legislative Task Force on Child Protection with Sen. Rosen. She sent KSTP the following statement:

“There are a disproportionate number of children of color being separated from their families, and I’m deeply committed to advancing solutions which will stop the arbitrary removal of children from their homes. I’m still fully examining Sen. Rosen’s legislation to see how all the aspects would interact with one another. I am encouraged though that the proposal contains language to ensure protection workers would be trained to interview children in a trauma-informed manner and that communities of color will be at the table as these requirements are developed.

“Last Friday’s Task Force hearing highlighted the vast disconnect between our child protection system and Minnesota’s families of color who are desperate to have people in positions of power listen to their heartbreaking experiences. Families belong together, and it’s time for our child protection system to reflect that value.”