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'Remember Eric Dean': Number of children removed from homes rising in Douglas County

Christine Jacobson / Echo Press

(Editor's Note: This is the first of a two-part series on foster care in Douglas County.)

The number of children removed from their parents is at the highest it's been in at least five years in Douglas County, and that is partly because of the 2013 murder in Starbuck of a 4-year-old boy named Eric Dean.

"We do a lot more assessments than we used to," said Laurie Bonds, the Douglas County Social Services director. "Even now when people are upset they mention that case."

By the end of June, Douglas County had removed 72 children from their homes, surpassing the 49 removed during all of 2013 and the 52 removed during 2014, according to data compiled by the social services office. The number has been rising each of the past five years, more than doubling to 103 in 2017 from 2013.

This trend is also happening statewide; from 2015 to 2016 alone, a state report found a 10.2 percent increase in the number of children removed from their homes.

Bonds emphasized that her agency's goal is not to separate families. Rather, the increased numbers reflect changes in how counties handle reports of child abuse and neglect and the rising number of reports coming in.

Dean's death at the hands of his father's girlfriend received widespread attention in 2015 after the Minneapolis StarTribune used it to illustrate gaps in the state's child-protection system. In the wake of the news coverage, Minnesota Gov. Mark Dayton formed the Governor's Task Force on the Protection of Children.

Its findings prompted changes across the state. Dean died despite 15 complaints to Pope County Human Services about his care. That was because state policy discouraged considering old reports of abuse or neglect about a child when a new report came in, even though social workers sometimes did, Bonds said.

"Now it's clear we're supposed to look at history," she said.

Also, Bonds' office fields many more reports of child abuse and neglect than it used to. It received 479 reports by the end of June, surpassing all of 2013 and is on track to exceed the 858 reports received in 2017.

"Especially if we screen something out, people will say, 'Remember Eric Dean,'" she said. "They don't mention someone who died in Hennepin County. It's because it's somebody that died in this area so that it's closer to home."

The growing numbers of reports and children removed from their homes might also have to do with the county's growing population and because families struggle to find drug and alcohol treatment, Bonds said.

"Families are stressed, we can see that," she said.

Previously, about two-thirds of reports of child abuse or neglect would get screened out, meaning that the agency would not pursue them. Now, Bonds said, only about half of the reports get screened out, which also follows a statewide trend.

Her agency is now more likely to scrutinize certain kinds of reports, such as when drug use in the home threatens a child's safety or when parents drive under the influence with children in their vehicles.

In the past, the agency would screen out second- or third-hand reports of abuse or neglect, as well as those the agency deemed motivated by retaliation, such as in custody battles, Bonds said. Now the agency overlooks these factors when deciding whether to pursue a case.

Turned down

Despite the changes, those concerned about a child's welfare are occasionally flummoxed when they report circumstances they believe endanger children, only to be told the cases don't merit agency intervention.

When an Alexandria father suspected his ex-wife was doing meth, he gathered evidence and presented it to social services. The man, who requested anonymity from the Echo Press, shares custody of their children with his ex-wife. He sent a sample of her hair to a lab, and the test revealed amphetamines and pot, he said. Yet social services screened out his report.

He provided the newspaper with a screenshot of a text conversation between his ex-wife and her friend where she confided that she would fail a urine test and lose custody of her children. He also provided a copy of the May 10 letter he received from Douglas County Social Services telling him his report did not meet criteria for assessment.

The man said he had been hoping an agency investigation would prompt his ex-wife to seek drug treatment.

While not commenting on his specific case, Bonds said reports receive a closer look if a parent is making meth or knowingly exposing a child to meth or meth paraphernalia. But they have to be able to prove the child was endangered.

"A positive hair test for methamphetamine or amphetamines by a parent does not necessarily mean ... that a child was present when the parent was using the meth or that any of the other above criteria regarding meth were met," she said. "If we have to go to court, that's what we have to prove."

After all, the agency can't decide to remove children from a home. Except in emergencies, when law enforcement is involved, a judge makes that decision.

"It's not based on a gut feeling," she said. "That's the difficult thing, (when) you have a gut feeling and you just can't prove it."

In the second part Wednesday, Aug. 22, find out how Douglas County is handling the rising number of child abuse and neglect cases.