Lawmakers Say State Not Putting Child Safety First In Abuse Cases

Minnesota state Reps. Peggy Bennett of Albert Lea and Ron Kresha of Little Falls discuss child abuse prevension during a break in a Tuesday, Nov. 10, 2015, St. Paul meeting. (Forum News Service photo by Don Davis)
Minnesota state Reps. Peggy Bennett of Albert Lea and Ron Kresha of Little Falls discuss child abuse prevension during a break in a Tuesday, Nov. 10, 2015, St. Paul meeting. (Forum News Service photo by Don Davis)

Minnesota legislators who crafted legislation earlier this year to make sure a child’s safety is first priority in abuse cases say the state is not following through with that requirement.

Rep. Ron Kresha, R-Little Falls, opened a Tuesday meeting of a legislative child abuse task force meeting chastising state and county officials working on the issue for not putting safety first. “When you walk in, that child has to be safe.”

“People seem to have forgotten safety,” Sen. Kathy Sheran, D-Mankato, said.

Kresha and Sheran, co-chairs of the task force, did not like the mission statement of the county-state panel working to implement this year’s child safety law: “Children are positioned within their cultural foundation and their families to achieve their fullest potential.”

The legislators said the mission statement does not say children’s safety should be the top priority. Sheran said state and county officials are going down a “slippery slide” away from safety first.

Legislators earlier this year passed a bill, signed into law by Gov. Mark Dayton, to change the priority in child abuse cases away from keeping the child in his or her family. Instead, the new law specifically says a child’s safety must be the paramount concern.

Assistant Human Services Commissioner Jim Koppel said in an interview that he disagrees with Sheran, Kresha and other legislators critical of his department.

“I think we have child safety as the paramount concern,” he said. “I think the department is following the intent very well.”

Others in his department pointed out that the “vision” of the state-county task force, listed even before the mission statement, puts “safe children” first. And right after the mission statement comes the goal that “children are safe.”

The new law and discussion that surrounded a well-publicized child abuse case prompted changes in counties.

“We are doing a better job assessing, we are going to be doing a much better job providing the right information to the right people so the right actions can be taken,” Koppel said.

Child abuse hit center stage early this year when reports surfaced that 4-year-old Eric Dean died in Pope County two years ago after 15 reports had been filed stating that he may have been abused. The county child-protection agency investigated one report and one was given to law enforcement officers, even though state law requires that every suspected abuse case should be referred to law enforcement.

With that as background, lawmakers easily passed legislation aimed at spurring more investigation into child abuse reports and making more information available to investigators.

Koppel said many counties changed how they dealt with child abuse after reading about the Dean case, before the state made any changes. Counties have primary responsibility to investigate abuse.

A governor’s task force on the issue made 93 recommendations for changes. Eight were included in this year’s law, many can be implemented without new laws, some are expected to be debated in future legislatures and the Human Services Department says some are unworkable as written.

Kresha said that the 2016 legislative session, to last just 10 weeks, will be too short to make further changes in child abuse laws, but the issue likely will arise again in 2017.