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Task force: Child protection system should be revamped

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A newly created task force will examine what happens early in child protection cases, before they go to court.

Related: Abuse case drives Dayton to order child welfare reviews

Members of the Task Force on the Protection of Children, who met for the first time Monday morning, are charged with making recommendations to improve the child protection system to legislators in advance of the 2015 legislative session.

"It's a system that really needs some revamping," said former Supreme Court Chief Justice Kathleen Blatz, who serves on the panel. "I don't think it's individuals so much, I just think the system just militates toward having problems because of the way it's set up...Mistakes are not corrected, or even understood."

Gov. Mark Dayton ordered a review of the state's child protection system, after a 4-year-old Pope County boy was killed by his stepmother despite repeated warnings to child protection services.

Dayton convened the task force, which is co-chaired by Department of Human Services Commissioner Lucinda Jesson and Ramsey County Commissioner Toni Carter. The governor told its members that he hopes Minnesota will be a very different state for children a year from now.

  "This is obviously a topic on a lot of people's minds these days, and a matter of considerable urgency," Dayton said. "So your work is going to be very closely followed and I trust will be taken very seriously by Commissioner Jesson and her staff but also by legislators in the next legislative session."

Dayton told the group he's concerned about violence. He said it's a theme that often emerges when he interviews judicial candidates about trends they're seeing in their counties.

"Almost to a one, it's increased abuse, spousal abuse, child abuse, family abuse by parents, by significant others, by relatives, by strangers," Dayton said. "And the intensity and the severity of the abuse has also increased. So I think one thing you could do is to help the people out there saying, 'How could you let this happen? How can this happen to anybody?' Which it shouldn't. Help them understand how it's come to this situation today."

State Rep. Joe Mullery, DFL-Minneapolis and State Sen. Kathy Sheran, DFL-Mankato, who serve on the panel, said their constituents are outraged by a law that prohibits child protection workers from considering previously rejected abuse reports when deciding whether to investigate a new allegation.

Mullery said he missed the provision when it was tucked in the middle of a 30-page bill.

"I'm getting a lot of pressure from everybody in the system that we should get rid of this as soon as possible," he said. "I couldn't believe that this was buried in there."

Dayton has said he wants the law changed.

Blatz, who opened child protection hearings to public scrutiny in 2002, said much more needs to be done, particularly on the front end.

"We need to understand the reports coming in," she said. "How many, the nature of the allegations, then what happened? Otherwise, I don't believe the system can be fixed. Too many people have been trying to fix it with the doors and windows closed. And it just doesn't get better."  

At issue is the high rate of reports that don't get investigated. More than two-thirds of calls to child protection don't result in cases being opened. The Legislative Auditor examined variations between counties in 2012.

Dr. Lisa Hollensteiner, an emergency room physician at Fairview Southdale Hospital in Edina who serves on the task force, wondered whether the state should have an emergency hotline rather than screening county by county.

"Obviously, my interaction with child protection is in the screening-in process," Hollensteiner said. "I am very concerned about our low screening-in rate and would like to look at that. Why is that? We're lower than most of the rest of the country, we're lower than other countries. I have the sense the bar is too low, we're looking at present danger rather than impending danger."