ST. PAUL, Minn. (WCCO) — A task force charged with finding ways to protect Minnesota’s children has come up with more than 90 recommendations.

Some deal with recruiting and training social workers, others will change the way children are screened.

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The group was formed after the tragic death of Eric Dean, the 4-year-old boy from Pope County who was murdered by his stepmother in 2013 despite repeated reports of abuse.

His case highlighted the need for improvements in the system.

Scott County Health and Human services director Judith Brumfield said it’s a complicated issue.

“Child protection alone is never going to be able to provide the ultimate safety to children,” Brumfield said.

She says parenting is very hard, and what some call good parenting others would call bad.

“For example, I may think that it is not OK to swear at your children,” Brumfield said. “But the government is not going to come in and tell you that’s not OK. On the other hand, if you have a very young child, who is playing in the street without supervision, then the government may come in and say we need to look at this.”

She said most reports that come in are based on neglect rather than abuse.

And it is then up to a team of social workers to determine if the government should intervene and provide services.

“So do they need chemical dependency treatment, do they need parenting training, do we have appropriate cultural parenting training because different groups parent differently,” she said.

She said counties do not have enough staff to do what they need to do, with too much turnover.

Brumfield added that social workers do what they can to help, but often the outcome is out of their hands.

For example:

“You’ve worked really hard with her, she’s made the changes she’s needed to make. She’s gotten an order for protection, and then she lets the abuser in and the child dies,” Brumfield said.

Or the child is taken from the home, as was in the case of Tiffany Hunsley.

On July 27, 2004, her house was raided by the South East Minnesota Drug Task Force.

“Just having that experience and going through the men with the masks and the guns was very traumatizing and my children were removed that time,” Hunsley said.

She was a drug addict back then and said she couldn’t see how her own disease was causing her to neglect her children.

Now she is sober, and has started an nonprofit called Recovery is Happening.

“And I know if we move to a more punitive practice, that will put families underground and they will not feel it’s safe to ask for help,” she said.

The task force looked at various components in the system.

Everything from the need for more social workers, and more training.

DFL Sen. Kathy Sheran was a member of the group. She said funding for each county in the state is different, making for an unequal system.

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“There’s no minimum that each county has to invest in child protection,” she said.

The funding for child protection comes mostly from the counties, with some from the state, and some from the federal government.

So when budgets are tight, oftentimes social services are some of the first to go.

Sheran said changes are needed.

“We need to improve our systems, our methods, our assessments, and the training of the staff to do that and the consistency across the state,” she said.

But the changes come at a cost.

She said they come at the cost of

“For food programs, for housing programs, for child care assistance, for transportation funding,” she said.

Sheran said in many cases it is not the desire of a parent to neglect their children.

“You can imagine, if the parent is working three jobs, how hard is it to get that child to someplace on time,” she said.

Sheran said that Eric Dean’s death will not be in vain.

“It became apparent that the problem is substantial and wide and that Eric Dean was just giving us a chance to look at what was going on,” she said.

The task force approved 93 recommendations on Monday.

Human Services Commissioner Lucinda Jesson called it an incredible effort.

“The task force has done a tremendous job in a short period of time to reset our child protection platform,” Jesson said.

She said there is a lot of work ahead but they are on the right path.

“We have task force from across the spectrum, and almost to a person they all said they support the changes,” she said. “That’s really encouraging to our state.”

Some of the task force recommendations include:

— making the safety of the child the main consideration when screening
— allowing past cases to be considered when a report is filed
— giving caseworkers more training; making the system more
— transparent, issuing reports to the state on county performance
— and increasing state funding

Jesson said some of the changes recommended can be made directly by the Department of Human Services.

Others, however, will need legislative approval.

The report will be sent to Gov. Mark Dayton and the Legislature following passage.

The governor has also pledged $52.5 million to make the changes.

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