Steve Eckert and A.J. Lagoe, Investigative Reporter 12 a.m. EDT July 1, 2015
ST. PAUL, Minn. - Reforms in Minnesota's child protection system go into effect Wednesday, July 1, including a requirement that all complaints to child protection be forwarded to police for possible investigation.
The new measure comes in the wake of reports of multiple child protection failures including the case of eight adopted special needs children who were allowed to live in filthy conditions. They lived in deplorable conditions in a Richfield house for years despite state mandated visits from a nurse and warnings reported to Hennepin County Child Protection.
Children lived in filth despite warnings to officials
KARE 11 first reported the story in April, showing images of bare mattresses stained with animal feces and urine, junk-filled rooms and mold-covered bathrooms.
The Davies' house was declared 'Unsafe for Human Occupancy' by the city of Richfield in February 2015 (Photo: Permission granted to KARE 11 by photographers)
New records indicate a report of alleged physical abuse of the children was received by child protection, but it was not forwarded to local police. That is something the new law is designed to change.
"Something definitely could have been done earlier," said Andrew Davies, now 20, the oldest of the children. He grew up in the home and says the problems went beyond a filthy house.
"I was abused," he told KARE 11's A.J. Lagoe. "Slapped around. Got like nails in the back of my neck. Even got thrown down the stairs one time."
The children were finally removed from the home and placed in protective custody in January, after Andrew called a family friend for help. Local building officials inspected the house and declared it "unsafe for human occupancy."
In February Andrew filed a formal child maltreatment report, claiming that his adult, adopted sister Erin Davies, the mother of two of the adopted children and a state-paid caregiver for the others, "physically abused" most of the children. He claims she threw a "bucket of hot cleaning water" at them, clawing their necks and slapping them "across the face." He also reported that she was "not giving the kids their medications" and, instead, "using them herself."
Erin Davies has not responded to KARE 11's attempts to discuss the allegations with her.
Andrew's report was far from being the first time CPS was warned the kids were at risk. Someone else made a report in 2010 that "a child was maltreated," but a copy of a child protection letter about the case shows that Hennepin County "determined child protective services are not needed."
Before that, there were other reports.
A woman who is a "mandated reporter" – meaning she's required by law to report suspected abuse she sees – told KARE 11's Lagoe that she made several official reports about the Davies house, once after scraping a dead cat off the floor of a child's bedroom.
"You made reports to child protective services?" asked Lagoe.
"I have. I have in the past, yes," said the woman, who asked that we not use her name.
"It's dead animals, it's animal feces," she recalled. "It's so much more than you could ever just think of."
Her warnings, she says, were ignored.
Child protection records aren't public, so it's hard to know what happened behind the scenes. But Hennepin County told KARE 11 that if a report is "screened in" or opened for investigation it's automatically forwarded to local law enforcement.
So KARE 11 went to Richfield, where the Davies house was located, and asked the police department if CPS ever forwarded any of those reports to them. The answer was no.
That tells us child protection likely "screened out" the reports and never bothered to actually investigate if the kids living there were in danger.
In fact, that's what has been happening to most child protection complaints. State data shows Hennepin County, which received more than 15,000 child protection reports last year, screened out nearly two-thirds of them. A review of the most recent federal data shows that in 2013, more than 70% of child abuse reports were screened out in Minnesota, without any protective action. That was the third highest rate in the country.
"I think most of us in the child welfare area would say there were too many cases screened out over time," said Rex Holzemer, Hennepin County's Assistant Administrator for Human Services.
Holzemer says the underfunded, understaffed system has in essence been running a triage system.
"Neglect compared to a sexual abuse case or a physical abuse case - especially a gross physical abuse case - is gonna fall to a lower priority," he said.
Hennepin County commissioned a recently completed report on their child safety system. It didn't mention any specific cases, but concluded child neglect has been "a low priority." The study concluded that reports of abuse and neglect were being screened out on "questionable grounds."
Child Protection cases closed on 'questionable grounds'
The issue of screened out reports exploded onto the headlines last year following the death of Eric Dean, a 4-year-old Pope County boy killed by his father's fiancé, Amanda Peltier.
Despite 15 warnings that he was being abused, Poe County Child Protection did not intervene.
In the wake of the little boy's death, Governor Mark Dayton appointed a special Governor's task force to recommend reforms. During a public hearing this spring, the filthy house in Richfield was one of the cases cited by witnesses.
In addition to statewide reforms, the Hennepin County Board plans to vote next week on a plan to add nearly 100 new workers to the local child protection staff.