Gov. Tim Walz will propose extra funding to hire more child protection workers and state lawmakers will meet Dec. 4 to begin discussing potential reforms in the wake of a Star Tribune investigation into widespread failures in Minnesota's child protection system.
"Any incident of child abuse is unacceptable, and we have to do everything in our power to prevent it," Walz said in a statement to the Star Tribune. "It's clear that Minnesota's counties need more resources to investigate reports of abuse, which is why we're proposing a plan to recruit and retain more workers to conduct these important investigations and keep children safe."
A Walz spokesman said the size of the funding request and other details about the governor's proposal will be released closer to the upcoming legislative session, which begins Feb. 12.
State Sen. Nicole Mitchell, co-chair of the bipartisan Legislative Task Force on Child Protection, said she wants lawmakers to consider whether counties should continue administering child protection services and other major reforms. Minnesota is one of nine states that don't use a state-run system.
"I do think tough questions need to be asked," said Mitchell, D-Woodbury. "We need to get at some of the root causes of why some of these cases aren't going the way they should."
Mitchell said she asked officials at the state Department of Human Services to attend the hearing to answer questions and address the Star Tribune's findings. The DHS oversees child protection services in Minnesota.
The Star Tribune's reporting revealed that hundreds of children are harmed each year when county officials return them to parents who have not addressed problems that prompted the removal of their children to foster care.
Since 2012, at least 86 children died from maltreatment after Minnesota's child protection system failed to protect them from caregivers with a history of abuse or neglect. Another 11 children died from suicide after a child protection case was filed on their behalf, including a 6-year-old girl.
The Star Tribune series, In Harm's Way, was prompted by the 2022 death of Eli Hart, who was killed by his mother 10 days after a Dakota County judge awarded her permanent custody of her 6-year-old son despite warnings from county workers about her fitness as a parent. At least 15 children have died in the past decade after being reunited with their caregivers, records show
"The stories in the Star Tribune investigation are tragic and heartbreaking," said House Speaker Melissa Hortman, D-Brooklyn Park. "They require our attention, and legislators will work with counties, experts, and advocates to improve outcomes for children. We want Minnesota to be the best state in the nation for children and families."
Though state officials previously vowed to address shortcomings in Minnesota's child protection system following a 2014 Star Tribune investigation, state and federal reports show Minnesota children are not better off.
A dozen children with a child protection history died from maltreatment in 2021, the second highest figure in at least a decade. The number of repeat abuse victims is also up 60%, with Minnesota's rate now twice the national average.
As a result of additional abuse and neglect, nearly 13% of Minnesota children who were returned to their parents were subsequently removed again over safety concerns in 2021, well above the federal standard of 8.3%.
"People need to be held accountable," said Rep. Anne Neu Brindley, R-North Branch, who sits on a committee that oversees the DHS. "I understand that we are human beings and we get it wrong sometimes. But for Minnesota to be so wildly out of step with the rest of the country says that we are doing something wrong systematically that is hurting these children."
Some lawmakers criticized the DHS for calling child fatalities in Minnesota with prior protection history "very small numbers."
"They should not trivialize this," said state Sen. Karin Housley, R-Stillwater, who sits on the child protection task force and also serves as assistant minority leader. "One child's death is too many. We need to do everything we can at the Legislature and at DHS to protect these kids. It should be a top priority to figure out where the cracks are in the system."
Lawmakers welcomed the governor's support for more funding, noting that a 2015 task force report recommended that the state boost county support so that child protection workers would handle no more than 10 cases at a time. Such funding never arrived, and some workers continue handling as many as 20 cases at a time.
"They are overwhelmed and we do want to help them out," Housley said.
Lawmakers also zeroed in on what many consider the state's overuse of Family Assessment, an alternative to traditional investigations that is a less probing response to reports of abuse and neglect. Family Assessment was designed to encourage parents to accept services such as anger management therapy. Instead, it has allowed many abusers to repeatedly evade consequences for their actions, records show.
In 2022, 65% of maltreatment reports that required action were steered to Family Assessment in Minnesota, while just a third of reports were investigated. Critics say Family Assessment should be used only for low-risk cases, or about a third of all maltreatment reports.
Mitchell said it's time to question whether Family Assessment should be scrapped or severely limited, such as restricting its use to cases that do not involve alleged physical abuse or other categories.
"Is there some better method?" Mitchell said. "And if we keep the dual track, do we then say that there are some types of reports that never qualify for Family Assessment, that they have to go to investigation?"
Rep. Dave Pinto, another co-chair of the task force, said he wants the upcoming hearings to target mortality reviews, which are required when a child dies from maltreatment in Minnesota. The reports are supposed to help guide improvements in child protection.
But a review by the Star Tribune found spotty compliance, and a DHS leader said she could not think of a single policy or procedure that changed as a result of the reviews in the past five years.
"I want to see what more we can do so we are learning every possible lesson from these tragic situations," said Pinto, DFL-St. Paul. "The stakes are super high. It is really important to get it right."