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It's Karen's Turn column: Following a child's murder, Minnesota needs to open CPS records to the public

The following is an opinion column written by an Echo Press editorial staff member. It does not necessarily reflect the views of the Echo Press.

We are part of The Trust Project.

In 2014, tears streamed down a whole bunch of faces when people read a Star Tribune special report about the death of Eric Dean.

You probably remember that Eric was the 4-year-old boy murdered in Pope County by his stepmother. Despite numerous reports to Pope County child protection that Eric was being abused, the county investigated only one, and found no maltreatment. He died in 2013 after his stepmother threw him across the room, perforating his intestine.

The circumstances of his death proved so heart wrenching that Minnesota launched an effort to overhaul its child protection system from one focused on keeping families together to one that focused on the wellbeing of the child.

Despite those efforts, there is now another child to mourn. Eli Hart, 6, whose body was found on May 20 in Orono in the trunk of his mother’s car, just weeks after a judge awarded her sole custody. His mother has been charged with second-degree murder. For the last year of his life, he had been in foster care, and those caring for him reported that they feared for his well-being if he was returned to his mother’s custody.

He was returned to her custody anyway. Why? We don’t know.

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“With all the red flags, the fact that numerous people were saying they feared for Eli’s safety if he was returned to her and that was ignored,” foster mother Nikita Kronberg told FOX-9 news. “So yes, I absolutely believe CPS, Dakota County, they failed Eli.”

More columns by Karen Tolkkinen
I was driving into town a few weeks ago, fiddling with the radio stations, when a voice came over the airwaves that was so full of hate and spite that it shocked me into listening.

Minnesota’s child protection system is cloaked with secrecy. Nine years after Eric Dean died, we still don’t know why Pope County investigated only one of the 15 reports that he was being abused and why they didn't turn abuse reports over to law enforcement as was required by law. It was just this past winter that the Minnesota Supreme Court ruled that Pope County DHS can be held liable for Eric’s death.

The intent of this column is not to drag social workers and judges through the mud. People tasked with child protection don’t go into that line of work with the intent of failing children. I would wager the vast majority of them, if not all of them, go into it wanting to help kids. I would also wager that many of them, maybe all of them, have helped children and even saved lives. Further, my guess is that those social workers and judges whose recommendations and decisions end in the death of a child suffer mightily for the role they played.

My intent is to decry the secrecy which is intended to protect children and families but in the end also protects the agencies when things go wrong.

When a child dies after child protective services has been contacted, the records ought to be flung wide open, letting sunlight and air into the room.

No matter how painful that is for county employees, the public needs to know what happened. Were the agencies spread too thin to investigate each case? Did laws prevent them from taking action? Were the case workers burned out? Was the judge irresponsible? Was there a preference to place the child with its mother, even though she was abusive, over a loving father? Tell us your reasoning.

As well known as the names of Eric Dean and Eli Hart have become, they were hardly the only children murdered by their caregivers in our state. According to the Minnesota’s Child Maltreatment Report from 2019 — the most recent report I could find online — maltreatment led to the deaths of 17 Minnesota children and 13 near deaths in 2019.

Eight of those murdered children were known to their county agency, who had investigated reports of child abuse, yet they died anyway. They were almost all babies, age 1 or younger. Many died of neglect, and several died of neglect and abuse.

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Why did they remain with their caregivers?

Open those records and let us see.

“It’s Our Turn” is a weekly column that rotates among members of the Echo Press editorial staff.

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The following is an opinion column written by an Echo Press editorial staff member. It does not necessarily reflect the views of the Echo Press.