The Minnesota Child Maltreatment Fatalities Report: Essential reading for child advocates everywhere

A shattering new report from a Minnesota child advocacy group demonstrates that many of the more than 160 deaths of children from abuse and neglect over an eight-year period ending last May were preventable. These deaths, the report concludes, can be attributed to “a child welfare philosophy which gave such a high priority to the interests of parents and other adults in households, as well as to the goals of family preservation and reunification, that child safety and well-being were regularly compromised.” This report is essential reading for child advocates everywhere, because this philosophy reigns around the country, and the troubling factors identified exist in states where most of the child population resides.

Produced by the child advocacy group Safe Passage for Children of Minnesota, and authored by Safe Passage Executive Director Richard Gehrman and Maya Karrow, a fellow from a local law school, the project collected information about 88 children who were killed between 2014 and 2022. The Minnesota Department of Human Services (DHS) told project staff that it was aware of 161 child maltreatment deaths during a period that mostly coincides with the period studied.1 But DHS refused to provide information on any of these deaths (in violation of state and federal law), so the staff had to rely on news reports, online court records, and information provided by counties for the 88 cases it had identified.

Like child maltreatment fatality victims nationwide, the dead children were young, with 42 percent under a year old and 36 percent between one and three years old. Children under four were 78.4 percent of the Minnesota deaths very similar to the 76.3 percent for child maltreatment fatality victims nationwide. Black children accounted for 26.1 percent of all the fatalities reviewed. In contrast, Black children were 17.8 percent of children involved with child welfare and 10.6 percent of the state’s child population in 2021.2 Based on the statistics and case file reviews, the report’s authors expressed concern that chld welfare agencies in Minnesota “may have tended to leave Black children in more high-risk situations for longer periods of time than children of other races and ethnicities.” The report’s authors are not the first to have asked whether fears of being accused of racism may be leading agencies to leave Black children in harm’s way even more than children of other races.

The most common causes of death among the cases reviewed were blunt force trauma to the head (33 percent) and body (19.3 percent). The other major causes of death were asphyxiation (17.0 percent) and gunshot wounds (8.0 percent). Other causes included drowing, sepsis, poisoning from drugs, stabbing, hypothermia/hyperthermia, fire, and undetermined causes.

The most common perpetrators of child fatalities were mothers (27.3 percent), mothers’ significant others (23.9 percent), and fathers (22.7 percent). In 65.9 percent of the cases, one or more of the perpetrators had a history of substance abuse. Shockingly, there were seven deaths in foster care, of which six were in kinship foster care. In another appalling finding, there were seven cases in which a child was killed along with the mother or while attempting to intervene in an assault on the mother.

A concerning pattern was the evidence of child torture in a surprisingly large number of cases. The project’s reviewers identified 14 cases (or 15.9 percent) that displayed signs of torture, according to criteria outlined by experts. The authors used the case of Autumn Hallow, who was killed at the age of eight, as an illustration. Investigators found that Autumn’s father and stepmother frequently bound her in a sleeping bag as punishment, sometimes with her hands tied behind her back or overnight, and starved her for six months so that she weighed only 45 pounds when she died. A particularly appalling feature of her case was the “chilling indifference by all the authorities involved to the screams of a child [reported repeatedly by neighbors] and the pleas of an increasingly distraught mother.” Autumn’s cause of death was declared to be asphyxia and blunt force trauma. Her father and stepmother were convicted of second-degree unintentional murder in her death.

The project uncovered numerous systemic flaws that contributed to the 88 deaths reviewed. These included inappropriate assignment of reports to a “family assessment” rather than a factfinding investigation; the failure to respond adequately to repeated reports suggesting chronic maltreatment; seemingly endless chances given to parents to address chronic problems; the return of children from foster care to homes where safety had not improved; the placement of children with kin without appropriate vetting; leaving children with mothers who repeatedly failed to protect them from violent partners; and the lack of integration between child welfare and child custody cases.

The repeated inappropriate assignment of cases to the “Family Assessment” (FA) track, which is intended for low-risk cases, was a major recurring theme in the case reviews. Minnesota is one of 34 states that initially adopted a two-track model, often known as differential response, for responding to reports of suspected maltreatment. (Some states have since terminated the practice). The idea was that a less-adversarial response than an investigation would be a better way to engage families with lower-risk cases. But with its practices like informing parents of visits beforehand, interviewing children in front of their parents, and making no finding as to whether maltreatment occurred, the report explains that FA is not appropriate when the risk to children is high. Yet, by 2020, 62 percent of CPS reports in Minnesota were assigned to Family Assessment. The researchers found that 31 of the 59 families with Minnesota child protection history had at least one and as many as six Family Assessment cases prior to the fatality. As the authors point out, “it is self evident that the repeated use of FA in chronically referred families is inconsistent with the policy that FA be used only in low-risk cases.”

Among the examples cited by the authors for the inappropriate use of FA was one that occurred following a report that a mother and her boyfriend were hitting their children with objects and dragging them by their hair. This family was the subject of six previous reports that included allegations of “physical abuse, sexual abuse, and unhygienic and unsafe conditions, including rotten food, garbage, drugs, alcohol, and sharp objects accessible to children throughout the home.” Twenty days after that last FA, two-year-old Lyla Koob was dead. Her mother’s boyfriend admitted to shaking her in frustration after she vomited. Her autopsy revealed bleeding on the brain and injuries behind both eyes. 

Based on analysis of court records, the researchers found that 71.6 percent of the dead children’s families had previous involvement with child protection. The 61 families included 59 with prior history in Minnesota and two with prior history in another state. In view of these percentages, it is not surprising that the project staff found that Minnesota child welfare had a pattern of failure to respond adequately to chronic maltreatment.

In some cases, the researchers noted a pattern of inaction by child welfare agencies in the face of chronic multitype maltreatment, or maltreatment that includes neglect as well as abuse. The case of Tayvion Davis, who died in 2018 at the age of eight, was used to illustrate this type of negligence. Before he was born, Tayvion’s mother was convicted of malicious punishment of a child after she and two adult relatives held down and beat one of her children. From that time until Tayvion’s death, the family was the subject of at least ten reports of physical abuse, sexual abuse, or neglect. According to court records, the children were hit with a hammer and a metal rod, whipped with a belt, burned with boiling water or chemicals, deprived of food and sleep as punishment, and threatened with death if they talked about the abuse. There were multiple reports of sexual abuse of Tayvion or a sibling by the oldest sibling, juvenile and adult relatives, and an unrelated adult.

Tayvion Davis froze to death in 2018 after his mother locked him in the garage overnight in subzero temperatures. The autopsy found numerous scars that suggested years of abuse that may have escalated into torture. Unbelievably, Tavion’s siblings were returned to their mother after being removed in the wake of Tavion’s death. They remained with her for another five months, during which she was the subject of several additional reports. It was not until they were removed again that they told their foster parents that Tavion was deliberately locked in the garage, resulting in murder charges against the mother.

The researchers also found that counties gave parents multiple chances to address chronic problems, while failing to execute effective safety plans for children remaining at home. One example of this tendency was the case of Aaliya Goodwin, who died at the age of five months. There had been eight reports for two older siblings regarding the parents’ substance abuse. Between 2015 and 2021, four safety plans were mentioned in court records, the oldest sibling was placed in foster care and returned home twice, the mother was charged with nine drug-related offenses and convicted of five, and the father was charged seven times with two convictions. The county opened a new FA in January 2022 due to a report of domestic violence and the mother agreed to a substance abuse assessment. Three days later she was found passed out on the couch after using drugs and alcohol. Aaliyah, squashed between her mother and the couch, was dead of positional asphyxia.

Another pattern cited in the report was counties’ tendency to return children from foster care to a home that was still unsafe. The project revealed that 26 percent of the children who died had been previously removed from their parents and then returned. The case of Khamari Golston was provided as an illustration of this pattern. Multiple abuse injuries to four-month-old Khamari resulted in his and his twin sister’s removal and placement in foster care. Their mother was charged with felony malicious punishment and assault. But only two months after adjudicating these children to be in need of protection, the judge sent them home for a “trial visit.” The mother was said to be cooperating with her case plan but there was no documentation of this in the court record. Eight weeks later, Khamari was dead of suffocation or smothering. He also had multiple injuries consistent with physical abuse. Khamari’s ten-year-old sister reported that their mother frequently choked him and covered him up when he cried.

Some children were returned from foster care to parents with serious mental illness. The report cites six-year-old Eli Hart, whose mother killed him with multiple shotgun blasts to the head and torso nine days after he was returned home. Eli was returned home without evidence that his mother’s mental illness was under control. Instead, her mental health remained a concern throughout the year that he was in foster care and during a trial home visit. She received eight traffic-related convictions (including for speeding and reckless driving) and was also charged with theft of pharmaceutical drugs during the time he was in foster care.

The occurrence of seven deaths of children in foster care, of which six were in kinship care, was a startling revelation of this study. There have been concerns raised around the country that the growing focus on kinship placements may be leading to the placement of children with family members who have not been adequately screened and are not appropriate caregivers. And indeed, the project staff found a “lack of due diligence in deciding whether a kinship placement would ensure the safety and well-being of the child.” To illustrate this pattern, the report offers the history of Leila Jackson, a 17-month-old who was killed by her foster father in 2018. Her autopsy showed “extensive subdural hemorrhages and severe brain injury, as well as extensive bruising on her buttocks.” Layla and her brother were placed in the kinship home after their mother’s parental rights were terminated. The foster parents denied having criminal records or substance abuse histories, but a background check (which was never conducted) would have revealed convictions for DWI, theft, possession of drug paraphernalia, and disorderly conduct.

The pressure to keep children with mothers who were victims of domestic violence, even when these mothers showed they were unable to protect their children, was another systemic problem noted by the project team. The authors found that 28.4 percent of the cases involved domestic violence–not surprising in view of the co-occurrence of child maltreatment with domestic violence. But that seven children were killed along with their mothers, or in an attempt to protect them, was shocking indeed. This is a difficult issue, and removals of children from domestic violence victims by CWS have been harshly criticized. But as the report put it, “at a certain point a line is crossed and it becomes imperative to move children to a safe place.”

In Minnesota, public child welfare cases are heard in juvenile court and custody cases in family court, which means that the same family can have two different court cases with different judges. The findings of the report suggest that the failure to consolidate these cases can place children at risk. In the case of Eli Hart, who was killed by his mentally ill mother, the custody case filed by his father was put on hold pending a resolution of the juvenile court case surrounding his mother. This is despite the fact that the mother’s mental health remained a concern and that all reports indicated that the father was a good and safe parent for Eli.

In sum, the report concludes that “the professional norms currently guiding child protection and foster care are out of alignment with those of the broader community.” As a first step, the report recommends that DHS release more information about child maltreatment fatalities, including making public the fatality and near-fatality reports that counties are required to submit to the state; such reports include information about previous reports and investigations on these families. This recommendation is particularly important because if the public knew about the types of egregious failures described in this report, there might be more public support for changes.

The report contains many specific recommendations to correct the systemic flaws found in the case studies. This year, Safe Passages will be distributing the report to legislators and briefing them on its findings and recommendations. Rick Gehrman, Executive Director Rick Gehrman reports that he will be working with legislators to translate some of these recommendations into legislation to be introduced in the next session, addressing at a minimum some of the Family Assessment practices that endanger children. The ultimate goal, Gehrman says, is to “raise public and legislative awareness of the child welfare practices that endanger children and to bring about a change in the overall philosophy of child welfare services in Minnesota.”

In effect, Safe Passages for Children has unofficially implemented the first recommendation of the Committee to Eliminate Child Abuse and Neglect Fatalities in its 2016 final report, Within Our Reach. That report recommended that each state, with federal funding and assistance, identify and analyze all of their child abuse and neglect fatalities from the previous five years in order to identify factors associated with maltreatment fatalities and agency policies and practices that need improvement to prevent fatalities. Based on this report, every state would develop a fatality prevention plan. Unfortunately, legislation supporting this proposal stalled in Congress and no state has elected to do this on their own. Maryland’s Council on Child Abuse and Neglect and its Child Fatality Review Board, inspired by this recommendation, formed a joint subcommittee that produced an excellent review of child maltreatment fatalities between 2007 and 2015 which identified systemic flaws and made recommendations to correct them. Other than that report, I am not aware of any other similar project by a state or local government agency. Let us hope that this report encourages other child advocacy groups and community boards to act where governments have not.

The final words of the report deserve to be repeated. “The erosion in professional norms that has gradually caused human services entities to tolerate the current level of neglect and physical abuse of children has developed over the course of decades. A concerted effort by a community of professionals will be required to restore standards that were once taken for granted, and to place appropriate limits on the ability of adults in a child’s life to harm them.”

Notes

  1. The actual number was likely two to three times as high because the manners of so many maltreatment deaths are misclassified.
  2. See Child Maltreatment 2021. Table C-2, Child Population 2017 to 2021 shows the state’s child population rose from 1,300,061 in 2017 to 1,317,567 in 2021. Table C-3, Child Population Demographics, shows that there were 140,129 Black children in Minnesota in 2021. That figure, divided by 1,317,567 gives the Black percentage of all children in Minnesota as 10.6 percent in 2021.

Despite DHS Statement, Little Change Apparent in Oregon Child Protection Practice Since Hart Case

Policies and Procedures binders in the office. Stationery on a wooden shelf
Image: Oregon.gov

In a cover letter accompanying the records of its interactions with the Hart family–the six children and their adoptive parents who are all presumed dead after their van drove off a cliff on –the Oregon Department of Human Services (DHS) tacitly acknowledged that it botched an opportunity to rescue the six children from years of suffering and a tragic death. DHS also suggested that such a catastrophic error would not happen today because policy and practice have changed. But available evidence raises questions about whether vulnerable children are any safer in Oregon today than they were in 2013.

The released records show that DHS knew that Jennifer and Sarah Hart had been reported for child abuse six times in Minnesota and two of these reports had been confirmed. Sarah Hart had even pleaded guilty to misdemeanor abuse charges and was placed on probation. At least two women who knew the family reported the Hart withheld food from their children and used excessively harsh punishments. Nevertheless, DHS closed its investigation after concluding it was unable to determine that there was abuse in the home.

Since the time of the Harts’ assessment, according to the cover letter, “DHS has shifted practice from incident-based investigations to comprehensive safety assessments” and Oregon has “greatly increased efforts to provide ongoing training…on Oregon’s Safety Model (OSM).” A quick search showed that OSM, in comparison with the previous practice model, indeed was a step toward protecting vulnerable children. Instead of being dependent on confirming the specific allegations of abuse, the decision to act would now be based on the present safety of the children.

But the recent audit of child welfare in Oregon reveals that the OSM was actually rolled out in 2006–and was in place long before the Hart investigation. Unfortunately, it was never fully implemented because of inadequate training and opposition from administrators and staff. There seems to have been a new push to implement the model fully at about the same time as the Harts were being investigated in 2013. But statewide effort to retrain workers in the model was halted in 2014 and the resources reallocated to training in a new model, Differential Response. That model was in turn dropped but training in the OSM never resumed. Managers were still resistant it in 2017, when the audit was conducted.

Moreover, the DHS website shows that the new push to train staff in the Oregon safety model is still in its early stages. In a description of a project called Fidelity to the Oregon Safety Model Part 2, DHS states that “Some caseworkers and supervisors know and use the model well but other caseworkers and supervisors do not.” The website goes on to say that while online training is available, the agency needs more trainings, as well as coaching and quality assurance, to make sure the model is used “consistently.” (And this is a model that has been on the books since 2006!) The project aims to “create new training so that all staff understand and use the Oregon Safety Model and use it correctly.”

The timeline for the Fidelity to the Oregon Safety Model Project Part 2 is dated April 2018. According to the timeline, the project began in “March – May 2017” with the hiring of a project manager. In the intervening year, according to the timeline, the agency has created a work team, developed a project scope, held a kickoff meeting, developed a project plan, developed a scope of work for a consultant, finalized deliverables, assigned tasks and set timelines. It looks like the “active work” begins in August 2018 and the training will not begin until February 2019! So Oregon’s new statewide effort to train staff in the Oregon Safety model does not appear to have begun. Who knows whether this effort too will be dropped before it is implemented, and how effective the training will be if it is actually put into place?

But one part of the OSM seems to have been in use already, despite DHS’s claim that it was not. The DHS letter claimed that things would be different today because “case workers are trained to assess factors that contribute to a child’s vulnerability such as isolation (sic). Children who have no outsiders observing them are considered ‘highly vulnerable’ under the [Oregon Safety] Model and this factor must be considered…when making child safety decisions.” The Hart records show that DHS investigators were already assessing for vulnerability. In a section called “Vulnerability,” the investigator reported that “The children are completely dependent on their caregivers and do not have contact with any mandatory reporters, as they are home schooled.” Despite this understanding, the investigators opted to close the case without protective action.

DHS appears to be manipulating its reporting of the facts in order to suggest that its child welfare system has been reformed to prevent future catastrophic errors. But the recent audit and the case files themselves suggests this is not the case. The subtitle of the audit, “chronic management failures and high caseloads jeopardize the safety of some of the state’s most vulnerable children,” provides further reasons to doubt the capacity of DHS to protect the state’s most vulnerable children.