Abuse case drives Dayton to order county child welfare reviews

A photograph of Eric Dean
A photograph of Eric Dean, 4, with a broken arm rests atop a folder of exhibits presented in court and folders of documents relating to the May 2014 trial of Amanda Peltier, the boy's stepmother.
Jeff Wheeler / Star Tribune via AP

Saying he was haunted by the photo of an abused Pope County 4-year-old, Gov. Mark Dayton Monday announced changes in the state's child protection system intended to keep kids safer.

The governor ordered the Department of Human Services to conduct monthly random screenings of decisions made by county child protection workers across Minnesota to ensure they're doing the job right.

Dayton also created a joint county-state team of child protection experts to advise county workers.

Gov. Mark Dayton
Gov. Mark Dayton announces executive actions aimed at Minnesota's child protection services.
Tom Scheck / MPR News

The action comes after the Star Tribune reported that county workers didn't follow up on abuse complaints about Eric Dean, a Starbuck, Minnesota, boy who was later murdered by his stepmother. It also comes just weeks after Vikings football player Adrian Peterson was indicted on charges of abusing his son.

Dayton began his news conference Monday by remembering Eric Dean. Despite 15 complaints from the boy's day care providers and others, his case was investigated only once. Dean's stepmother is in prison for his murder.

"The picture of 4-year-old Eric Dean smiling at the camera despite a visible wound on his face, will haunt me for a long-time," the governor said

Dean's case and the story behind it prompted questions from policy leaders, legislators and others. They include how clear signs of abuse can be ignored or overlooked by county employees whose job is to stop abuse.

Minnesota is one of 12 states that allow counties to administer human services programs such as child protection. The state oversees that work.

Human Services Commissioner Lucinda Jesson
Human Services Commissioner Lucinda Jesson at a press conference on Monday.
Tom Scheck / MPR News

Dayton also announced a task force to review the state's child protection system to determine whether more changes are needed. Ramsey County Commissioner Toni Carter will co-chair the task force with Human Services Commissioner Lucinda Jesson.

Counties welcome the additional oversight, Carter said, adding the task force will also consider whether more funding is needed to help counties investigate child protection complaints.

The state has cut $36 million in child services over the past 10 years and some think more money and oversight are needed.

Ramsey County Commissioner Toni Carter
Ramsey County Commissioner Toni Carter at a press conference on Monday.
Tom Scheck / MPR News

Only 29 percent of calls of maltreatment in Minnesota are investigated, compared to 62 percent nationally, said Richard Gehrman, executive director of Safe Passage for Children of Minnesota, a group that advocates for child protection and foster care.

Gehrman praised the governor for his action but said more needs to be done and worries situations like Eric Dean's may be more common than most people think.

"We think that's the way the system is working. There are many small reports, anecdotal reports that reinforce that," he said.

"What I like about where the governor and the commissioner are going is that this will begin to get some information that you can see on a regular basis without doing a special study or without just talking to a lot of people," he added. "That will help us see where there's a need for improvements in the system."

Dayton said the task force will be named next month and will present its findings to him and lawmakers by the end of the year.