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Child abuse reports jump dramatically in Minnesota

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A photograph of Eric Dean
Photo of Eric Dean, a 4-year-old Starbuck, Minn., boy who was killed by his stepmother in 2014. Dean's case made child abuse a vitally important issue for Gov. Dayton, resulting in changes in the state's child protection system.
Jeff Wheeler | Star Tribune via AP 2014

Nearly 40,000 Minnesota children were suspected of being abused or neglected in 2016, 25 percent more than 2015, state officials said Tuesday in a worrisome report that also noted a huge jump in maltreatment investigations.

The data posted by the Minnesota Department of Human Services didn't explain the increases in detail but said the spike likely came from "increased awareness about child protection issues, changes in how reports are reviewed and a growing opioid crisis."

Children in struggling families — those stressed by poverty, unemployment and addiction who lack social support — are particularly at risk, the department said.

Child abuse became an in issue vitally important to Gov. Mark Dayton in 2014 after the Minneapolis Star Tribune reported that county workers didn't follow up on abuse complaints about Eric Dean, a 4-year-old Starbuck, Minn., boy who was later killed by his stepmother.

Dayton said then he was haunted by the photo of the smiling, battered boy that appeared in the newspaper as he announced changes in the state's child protection system intended to keep kids safer. 

The moves included having state human services officials 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.

Preventing child abuse before it occurs must be an important part of the approach, Jim Koppel, an assistant human services commissioner, said in statement Tuesday as the agency released the newest data as part of Child Abuse and Neglect Prevention Month.

"While it is our job in counties, tribes and at the Minnesota Department of Human Services to protect children from abuse and neglect, all of us, every caring adult in Minnesota, has a role to play to prevent harm from ever happening," Koppel said. 

Besides the jump in suspected cases, DHS reported that of the more than 39,500 children who were the subject of suspected abuse, 16,400 were part of child maltreatment investigations, a 43 percent increase over the previous year.

The department said to help turn the tide on child abuse, Minnesotans can help families who might be struggling by:

• Setting an example by being nurturing and patient with children

• Encouraging parents to exercise or spend time with friends to relieve stress

• Offering parents a break by encouraging them to rely on their family members and friends who can help.

"The results of doing nothing can be costly, leading to depression, substance abuse, learning difficulties, early pregnancies, unhealthy relationships and difficulty in school for children," Koppel said. "We must focus on helping and nurturing children, and supporting their parents."