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'An important first step': New child protection measures are now law

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Minnesota's child welfare workers can now use previous reports of child neglect or abuse – even rejected ones – when considering whether to pursue a new investigation.

The move has wide support, both politically and from advocacy groups. But many supporters say it's only a first step, the start of what could be sweeping changes to the state's child protection system.

What does the law do?

The new measure was signed into law Tuesday by Gov. Mark Dayton, just weeks after it was passed unanimously in both the House (130-0) and Senate (60-0). The regulations went into effect Wednesday.

The two big changes the law makes to the child protection system:

1) Allows rejected reports

This new law makes any report – whether screened out or not – a permanent part of the child’s file, one that can be referenced later when considering a new investigation. (It comes after lawmakers passed a bill that made rejected reports unavailable, which was quickly criticized.)

2) A shift in the philosophy of handling of abuse reports

Previously, county and tribal screeners who got those reports were told to focus on keeping children with their family. Under the new bill that philosophy changes, and instead prioritizes the safety of the child.

Reaction: Positive, but just the beginning

Rich Gehrman, director of advocacy group Safe Passage for Children, told the Star Tribune the previous policy asked workers "to look the other way when there was a pattern of abuse." These new measures put a stop to that, he added.

And Rep. Ron Kresha, the Republican from Little Falls that authored the bill, said Tuesday he was "grateful" to Dayton and his fellow lawmakers for getting it enacted.

Dayton (a Democrat) said it would "restore an important layer of protection that will help identify abuse and enhance the safety of our children."

According to Kresha, 25,297 children were reportedly abused or neglected in 2013. Seventeen children died.

He called the new measures "an important first step toward improving our child protection system and ensuring we're protecting Minnesota children."

Criticism for Minnesota's child protection system

This new law follows criticism over failures of the system, most notably the horrific case of Eric Dean, the Pope County boy who died at the hands of his stepmother in February 2013.

Last year, a Star Tribune investigation found that suspicions of child abuse had been reported to the county on not fewer than 15 occasions prior to his death.

The case prompted lawmakers to launch a campaign last fall to overhaul the state’s child protection system.

More changes could be made

Gov. Dayton, in his new supplemental budget proposal, is asking for $52 million to enforce new child protection strategies suggested by the Task Force for the Protection of Children, which he appointed last fall to look into how to reform the system.

In December, the group laid out its initial recommendations, which includes better screening conditions, improved family assessment, making sure the service has adequate resources, and more.

A list of final recommendations is due March 31. Expect lawmakers to consider more measures once that's available.

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