D.J. Tice
See more of the story

Opinion editor's note: Star Tribune Opinion publishes a mix of national and local commentaries online and in print each day. To contribute, click here.


At least three times during this year's legislative session, Rep. Jim Nash has left usually voluble Minnesota House colleagues more or less speechless after hearing him make his case for a seemingly modest piece of legislation, a bill Nash has authored creating a new misdemeanor-level criminal offense in Minnesota.

A fifth-term Republican and minority caucus whip from Waconia, Nash is mild-mannered and thoughtful, commonly found championing lower taxes, less regulation, tough-minded criminal justice policy and other mainstream conservative priorities.

"I understand this is not your typical Jim Nash speech," he's allowed several times while urging support for HF 4793 on the House floor and in a committee hearing, his voice occasionally cracking with emotion. In an interview, Nash explained that while it's difficult talking publicly about "an intensely personal thing," he has "come to the point where I'm not willing to be complacent and sit by and wait anymore. … I've done that for years."

Nash adds: "I've realized that, serving here in the Legislature, I've got the opportunity to take the things that went wrong in my life … and try to make it right."

What went wrong in Jim Nash's life is that adults failed to rescue him from 17 years of childhood abuse at the hands of his father. "There were a lot of nights that I would pray for someone to come and save me," he remembers. "And no one came."

Nash's bill would make it a misdemeanor for any organization or individual to prevent or discourage a "mandatory reporter" from alerting authorities to evidence that a child is being mistreated.

Mandatory reporters, including doctors and nurses, educators, clergy and social workers, are required by law to call authorities' attention to signs of abuse and neglect they see in children. They face criminal penalties if they willfully fail to do so. But today no penalty is imposed on leaders of a school, medical facility or other entity who might pressure or persuade a mandatory reporter to stay silent.

That's what happened to Nash and his four sisters — Karen, Jennifer, Valerie and Summer. Growing up in Minnesota and later Colorado, all the children suffered, but "I was typically the object of his frustration and anger," Nash says. "It would go from a fist or a hard slap — those were the light days — to a number of times when I was beaten with things like a baseball bat or axe handle. Once I had a broom handle broken across my face."

The boy was hospitalized eight times. And while "the physical injuries heal and go away," Nash says, "the mental anguish doesn't; it never goes away."

Decades later, the lawmaker suffers chronic sleeplessness. "I wake up with nightmares about being beaten. So I choose not to sleep, I guess."

Nash says he hopes telling his story to advance his bill will help heal some of his own remaining wounds while better protecting other children. "No kid," he says, "should end up as a 55-year-old guy who doesn't sleep much, who's still confused about his childhood."

For Nash, some of the deepest confusion arises from his knowledge that an elementary school principal intervened to cover up a favorite teacher's report of the child's repeated, visible injuries. It was "a family thing," the teacher was told. Worse, Nash's own mother, a nurse and supervisor of nurses, "made it all go away," ensuring the violence in her home was never reported. Years later, she told Nash that she "figured you could take it."

Nash told his House colleagues this month that he's been asked whether he really believes his own mother should have been criminally punished for her dereliction of a mandatory reporter's duty. He says yes, admitting it's a hard thing to say. He also says he'd like to see interference with a mandatory report carry a stiffer, gross misdemeanor penalty. But at the Legislature, he knows, it's best to start with a small step, and he's heartened by the broad bipartisan support his bill has received so far. Passed in the House as part of a large public safety measure, it awaits action in the Senate.

Inadequacies in mandatory reporting are just one of many flaws in Minnesota's child protection system that have come into sharper focus in recent years. Nash has repeatedly cited the Star Tribune's 2023 series "In Harm's Way," which documented such failings.

The series let former Minnesota Chief Justice Kathleen Blatz, long a leading advocate for more vigorous protection of kids, summarize the maddening reality that "too many children are being harmed because the system is focused too much on helping the abusers and not protecting the abused." State policy, Blatz says, "has elevated family preservation and parents' rights over children."

The same lopsided emphasis is faulted by the advocacy group Safe Passage for Children of Minnesota. In an updated report in January on children identified as having died from maltreatment — 26 between May 2022 and June 2023, with fentanyl poisoning a newly prominent cause of death in these tragedies — the group worries that "concerning patterns persist because of a philosophy that assigns high priority to the rights of parents and caregivers while giving children's best interests inadequate weight," as a result "leaving children in situations of high risk and continued abuse over long periods … ."

Safe Passage (full disclosure: I recently joined the group's volunteer board) acknowledges some welcome improvements in child protection policies and resources in recent years in the wake of news coverage and several state task forces examining the issues. But more change is needed, and this session the group backs Nash's mandatory reporting bill and several measures (HF 4697/HF 4727) that would establish oversight panels to provide ongoing scrutiny of child deaths and child protection practices.

"Anything we can do to make the type of abuse I took as a kid more rare would be great," Nash says. "But I think this is best done a couple bills at a time, a couple bites at a time. And I'm willing to be a leader in that and work with anyone who's willing."

Nash's aim is "to make it so the Jims and the Karens and the Jennifers and the Summers and the Valeries have a little hope."