Advocacy group: Two bills before Legislature could protect children in abuse, neglect cases

Jerry Lee Curry and Sheila Wilson
Jerry Lee Curry, 52, is jailed on charges of rape, assault and stalking. Shelia Machelle Wilson, 48, is being held on three counts of criminal neglect.
Courtesy of Hennepin County Jail

A state child advocacy group is expected to testify Wednesday at the Capitol in favor of two bills it hopes would prevent future child abuse cases like those outlined in charges filed against a Minneapolis couple.

Rich Gehrman, executive director of Safe Passage for Children of Minnesota, said the group wants legislators to revisit the way initial reports of child abuse and neglect are probed by the state's social workers.

The hearing, set for 3 p.m. at the Senate Human Services Reform Finance and Policy Committee, comes just two weeks after Jerry Lee Curry, 52, was charged with raping, beating and chaining his 21-year-old twin daughters in 2017. Shelia Machelle Wilson, 48, who was the court-appointed guardian to the couple's developmentally disabled twins at the time, is jailed on three counts of neglect in the case.

The incident that sparked the charges was at least the third time abuse and neglect complaints were received about the family.

Gehrman said the first allegations of abuse — raised against the family four years before they were charged — should have been investigated more thoroughly.

Court documents show that in March 2013, Hennepin County social services received a report saying the twins were being abused for lying. Curry reportedly hit one of the girls in the back of her head with his fist. He allegedly banged the other twin's head on a countertop.

"...according to court records, [the complaint] was assigned to family assessment which is more like a voluntary version of child protection. And it was closed immediately at the request of the parents," said Gehrman.

There are two paths an initial alleged child abuse report can take in the state: family assessment or investigation.

The majority of the 18,000 reports of child abuse and neglect the state receives a year are routed into an assessment. Roughly 30 percent go the family investigation route, according to the state Department of Health and Human Services.

The proposed legislation would require a more vigorous fact-finding process be conducted before a case can be referred to family assessment. It would also clarify that caseworkers can interview children outside the presence of the alleged abuser.

"These two bills, in particular, are about changing practices that we think give alleged perpetrators the opportunity to coach and intimidate children before the child protection worker can interview them," said Gehrman.

Bills born out of governor's recommendation

The bills are based on initial recommendations issued in a 2014 report by The Governor's Task Force on the Protection of Children support.

"Evaluate child safety through individual contact with a child," reads the report. "Similar to a family investigation, a family assessment should involve meeting with a child(ren) individually to best assess safety. This individual meeting may occur with or without parental notification."

An online brochure on the state's website describes the family assessment process as a way to ensure child safety through a procedure that avoids assigning blame or stigmatizing the family.

"Rather than focusing on the details of a specific incident to prove or disprove that abuse or neglect occurred, county workers and families focus on the safety of children and families' strengths to address concerns," reads the pamphlet.

An evaluation of Hennepin County's child protection intake system conducted in 2015 by Casey Family Programs found that some of the cases submitted to the family assessment process were high risk "and should have been assigned to the INV [investigative] track," reads the report.

Bills' author: No fingerpointing

However, the chief author of the bills, Sen. Minority Whip John Hoffman, DFL-Champlin, said the proposed legislation is not about pointing the finger at Hennepin County.

Instead, he said, he's more concerned that out of dozens of recommendations to come out of the state's task forces only five have become new state law.

"What prompted me to get involved with this was there were still a couple of things out there — a couple of subjects out there that Safe Passage for Children wanted to have a formal hearing on," he said.

Hoffman said he knows that in the wake of the Curry case many are asking: What went wrong and who knew what when?

"Instead of asking that, let's just ask ... what are the assurances in place so that this doesn't happen again in the future," he said.

Creating laws may create further issues

Jennifer DeCubellis, Hennepin County's deputy administrator of Health and Human Services, said generally, the legislation is in line with the county's focus on making child safety its top priority.

However, she has "worry points" about it. Codifying some practices into law, DeCubellis said, can remove the ability of staff to make important judgment calls.

For instance, she said in some cases it does make sense to interview children outside the presence of an adult.

But, "oftentimes there's an allegation against one caretaker and the other caretaker being present with the child helps that child not be further traumatized by being questioned by a stranger."

DeCubellis said other parts of the proposed law could pose financial challenges for counties as well.

Child protection professionals like Kelis Houston don't want to see this kind of alleged abuse and neglect go on for years either.

But Houston has some problems with the proposed legislation, which she said she brought up with Gehrman.

"What I expressed to Rich is that I would like language added to specify when child protection can pull children aside for interviews," she said.

Houston, who is also a child protection advocate for the Minneapolis NAACP, said her concerns are based on racial disparities which negatively impact black families. Black children are much more likely to be placed out of home than whites, she said.