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Dangerous Illusions

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Dangerous Illusions

A harrowing report on child maltreatment in Minnesota points out several lessons that could apply to child-welfare systems nationwide. February 9, 2023
The Social Order

“Custody of six-year-old Eli Hart was returned to his mother after two inpatient psychological evaluations for delusional behavior; despite ongoing concerns expressed by the child protection caseworker and the Guardian ad Litem about her chronic mental illness, they recommended that her case be closed; nine days after the court terminated her case, she killed Eli with nine shotgun blasts.”

This is one of many horror stories told in a new report by a group called Safe Passage for Children of Minnesota. The report, “Minnesota Child Fatalities from Maltreatment: 2014–2022,” is a thorough and appalling account of how the bad decisions of child welfare workers, judges, law enforcement, and medical professionals have resulted in the deaths of dozens of children across the state due to abuse and neglect. As the group’s executive director Richard Gehrman and staff attorney Maya Karrow conclude, the report demonstrates “the system’s tolerance for violence against children and its lack of urgency regarding its youngest victims.”

Between January 2015 and April 2022, a period approximately corresponding with the report’s time frame, Minnesota counted 161 child fatalities due to maltreatment. The authors could obtain records or newspaper accounts for only 88 of those fatalities. The commissioner of the state Department of Human Services declined to release the remaining records. The data that Gehrman and Karrow were able to obtain—from media accounts, court records, and county agency records—show that children suffering chronic and severe abuse and neglect were either left in dangerous homes or removed briefly and then returned to their abusers.

Similar with trends nationally, children between birth and 11 months were most likely to suffer harm, accounting for 42 percent of the deaths in Minnesota. Boys were more likely to be killed than girls, and black children were more likely to be killed than children of any other race. African-Americans make up only slightly more than 6 percent of the population in the state but account for 17.8 percent of the kids in the child-protection system and 26.1 percent of the child fatalities. There is a higher raw number of black child maltreatment fatalities than white child fatalities.

Who was primarily responsible for the child fatalities? The data hold few surprises for those following this field. Mothers are most often responsible. Deaths at a mother’s hands more typically result from drug abuse and mental illness. Take the case of five-month-old Aaliyah Goodwin, who was smothered to death. Eight reports came in to child-protection services over a seven-year period regarding her parents’ inability to care for their children because of substance abuse.

Coming in at a close second as an instigator of child maltreatment is the mother’s significant other. Children living with a mother and a nonrelative male, moreover, are at the highest risk for physical abuse, as opposed to neglect. Sophia O’Neill was two years old when she died because her mother’s boyfriend, babysitting while her mother was at work, kicked her and stomped on her back.

Four maltreatment reports were filed concerning Sophia’s household prior to this fatal incident. Three were assigned to something called Family Assessment, an “alternative to the traditional child welfare response to maltreatment reports.” Most states have something like this, often called “alternative response.” It’s a way of engaging parents who may have been reported for maltreatment but whose cases don’t rise to the level of imminent risk and who may need some services or material help in order to parent appropriately.

But as the Safe Passage report notes, these practices are being applied in cases where children clearly are at high risk. Moreover, the Family Assessment protocols actually “hinder the ability of child protection caseworkers to assess child safety and therefore to protect children.” For instance, cases assigned to Family Assessment involve giving caregivers advanced notice of the arrival of an investigator, who then proceeds to interview the children in the presence of caregivers. Needless to say, both of these practices get in the way of finding out what is really going on in a family.

In Sophia’s case, the Family Assessment included a “safety plan” that involved Sophia’s mother keeping her boyfriend away from her daughter. As the report observes, “The record does not indicate whether this safety plan was monitored.” No kidding.

Safe Passage examined several cases in which medical professionals must have seen evidence of severe abuse and neglect but failed to report it to authorities (or perhaps they did report it, but authorities did not act on the information). In one instance, a two-month-old died of blunt-force trauma, but the autopsy revealed multiple healing rib fractures and bruises. In fact, the child was brought to the doctor for a check-up with bruises on his arms just a few days before his death, but the doctor was told that dogs stepped on him.

Another deeply concerning finding is that seven of the 88 fatalities occurred while the child was in foster care. Advocates for reducing removals to foster care often argue that these homes do not treat children well, but statistically, foster parents are less likely to abuse or neglect children than members of the general population. More significantly, all but one of the seven fatalities in Minnesota occurred in a kinship foster placement. In other words, a child removed from the home of one abuser was placed with an extended family member who was subsequently responsible for his or her death.

The authors noted that kin caregivers have reported feeling pressured to take children and cite “political pressures to keep children within family and community.” They maintain that “This pattern of decisions appears driven by organizational needs and political considerations rather than the best interests of the child.”

The factors driving these decisions in Minnesota are the same ones seen in other states. Caseworkers are told that the problems of these families can be solved with friendly, supportive interactions and more material support. Agency heads and judges tell them to believe that any family can be rehabilitated, and that keeping nonwhite children with their parents—or, if not their parents, then their extended families—is paramount. And the higher-ups seem reluctant to release any information that might lead the public to question these policies.

The report should make local and state workers, politicians, and judges in Minnesota feel ashamed. But we should also hope for similar investigations to be made in all 50 states, as many of these problems are widespread. Acting on these stories is the least we can do for the thousands of children each year denied the safety and care they deserve.

Photo: Brankospejs/iStock

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