- Associated Press - Wednesday, January 21, 2015

ST. PAUL, Minn. (AP) - A group of Minnesota lawmakers offered options Wednesday for strengthening a state child-protection system that advocates say has strayed from always putting kids first.

It’s a response to some high-profile cases where mistreated children died or suffered severe injury despite warning signs social service workers didn’t act on. The four legislators from both parties and both legislative chambers proposed giving law enforcement and county child-protection workers more information about child abuse reports.

The lawmakers say the change would curb a shift in the system over the past 15 years that has sometimes prioritized keeping families together over child safety.

About 70 percent of all child abuse reports deemed credible are handled with “family assessment,” a voluntary process without any law enforcement power, said Democratic Sen. Kathy Sheran of Mankato. The use of that method has more than doubled in the past decade.

The two Democrats and two Republicans serve on a task force Gov. Mark Dayton created after media reports that a 4-year old boy was killed by his stepmother despite more than a dozen prior abuse complaints logged with social workers. State law currently bars child protection workers from considering past abuse reports that weren’t acted on when deciding whether to investigate new ones.

Rep. Joe Mullery said he heard hours of testimony as part of a task force subcommittee on how counties choose to “screen out” complaints they deem unwarranted.

“The things that were being screened out were, to me, amazing that they would be screened out. And there was not even any corroboration or research,” the Minneapolis Democrat said.

The legislators want to repeal the law that bans consideration of screened-out reports. It also wants to keep child protection records on file for five years instead of one.

The proposal would require counties to forward their reports to law enforcement agencies, a practice that some already use.

The commissioner of the state’s Department of Human Services would also have to provide screening guidelines to county and state child protection officials.

Rep. Ron Kresha, a Little Falls Republican, said it’s not yet clear how much the extra scrutiny would cost law enforcement and child protection agencies. But he said keeping more children alive to go to school, get jobs and start families will more than make up for it.

Mr. Dayton told reporters Wednesday that he hadn’t seen the proposal but looks forward to reviewing it.

“Hopefully this is something that can have broad bipartisan support. It shouldn’t be a partisan issue. We all want to take care of our kids,” Mr. Dayton said.

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