Friday, September 5, 2014

Making Sure There Are No More Deaths Like Eric Dean's

The ugly death of 4-year-old Eric Dean at the hands of his stepmother could have been prevented if state child welfare workers had taken seriously the 15 reports of possible mistreatment in his case. The Star Tribune did a good job on the story last Sunday, which left me angry and sad, as I'm sure it would anyone.

A key part of how the system failed is the practice of "screening out" some reports of possible abuse that don't meet a certain set of criteria. The Strib had covered this practice in detail in an earlier story.

As I read the Eric Dean story, though, I kept wondering whether screening out was a long-standing practice of the state, or if it was introduced after budget cuts. That was not mentioned. Neither were the caseloads of the child protection workers in the Dean case.

Today's Strib contained a letter from a long-time guardian ad litem -- one of the volunteers who stand in for parents when juveniles are in the court system for abuse -- that began to answer my question:
So Minnesota legislators are outraged over the death of 4-year-old Eric Dean (“Lawmakers: System failed Eric,” Sept. 4). The chairwoman of the House Health and Human Services Policy Committee calls for hearings. The chairwoman of the Senate Health, Human Services and Housing Committee says “there must be something terribly flawed in the system.” There is a lack of enough funding to investigate, prevent, divert, ameliorate and, as a last resort, remove children from their caregivers into safe and nurturing foster or adoptive homes.

I have served as a Hennepin County volunteer guardian ad litem (court-appointed child advocate) for neglected and abused children since 1998. In my 16 years of service I have seen the criteria for offering services to children and families become more and more stringent as funding shrunk. I’ve seen changes in the system that gave social workers less and less time to deal with individual clients. I’ve heard a very good judge say that he could order a child sent to a treatment center but that it would be futile since the county social service department had no funds for this facility. I have seen excellent social workers grind their teeth in frustration because they know what’s needed and can’t fund it. I could go on.

A good social welfare system is like anything else you purchase: You get what you pay for. If the taxpayers of this state want children to be safer than they are now, the taxpayers will have to pay for it. And the Legislature will have to take the increased revenue and allocate it to social services.

Elaine Frankowski, Minneapolis
The age of tax cuts and "government is bad" give you outcomes like the death of Eric Dean. Whenever cuts are made, there are effects that are not seen or felt by the majority of people, or those cuts would not be made. But the cuts still have consequences.

I'm sure lots more children died at the hands of parents or step-parents before the child welfare system was put into place, and some always will be missed for one reason or another. But we can do better than what happened to Eric Dean in Minnesota. And someone has to pay the bill for that.


Update: The Twin Cities Daily Planet reports that the Republican-controlled legislature made large cuts to the child protection budget in 2011. Quoting an earlier story by MPR's Bob Collins:
“These are the most vulnerable children; children who have experienced neglect, physical abuse, and sexual abuse. Only 60 percent of reports investigated in a timely fashion. Will this bill help that? Probably not,” [Democratic Rep.] Hosch said.

Still, with only 45 minutes of debate over the bill, House Republicans probably knew what was at stake because Mary Regan, the executive director of the Minnesota Council of Child Caring Agencies, spelled it out for them.

“These are the only state dollars in Minnesota’s child protection system,” she said. “Minnesota puts fewer state dollars in child protection than any other state in the country. The grant is reduced by 30%. Investing allegations of abuse and neglect is a core function of our society. Nobody else can take on this essential task.” . . . (emphasis added)
The Daily Planet continues, "Shortly thereafter, Senator Linda Berglin, who then served Minneapolis, wrote in a Star Tribune op-ed that State GOP's cuts target the vulnerable." And then quoted Berglin's op-ed:
When the legislative session began in early January, Republican leaders in the Minnesota House and Senate pledged to protect funding for children, for the disabled and for those who are unable to take care of themselves.

Less than a month later, these same Republican leaders are on the verge of ramming through legislation that will cut state funding for the treatment and protection of Minnesota's most vulnerable children.

They're proposing to take away nearly one-quarter of all state funding that helps counties pay for child protection services and support for families with children facing developmental disabilities and mental illness. . . .

The proposed cuts are aimed at the state's Child and Community Services grant program. Funding for this program supports key services to several vulnerable populations.
The Daily Planet wraps up with this: "What was the rationale? Two house leaders replied to Berglin in the Star Tribune op-ed piece, 'High stakes and hard choices' that trusting the counties would provide solutions."

Trusting the counties has clearly worked out well.

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