Minnesota’s Differential Response; from a Different Perspective

By Mark Hudson

In his recent opinion editorial, “Putting Differential Response into Perspective”, David Thompson, who recently retired from Minnesota’s Department of Human Services, notes that the child homicide of four-year-old Eric Dean has raised questions about the efficacy of Family Assessment Response in Minnesota.

I cannot help but wonder if the Op-Ed  was meant to put differential response in perspective or if it was meant to put distance between differential response and this tragedy.

Mr. Thompson provides much discussion about the role of differential response in neglect, yet mentions nothing about physical abuse. While Mr. Thompson might be correct in his statement that, “Over 78 percent of child maltreatment reports nationally are for neglect,” it is important to note that less than 60 percent of maltreatment reports in Minnesota are for neglect.

Eric Dean was not reported to Child Protective Services for neglect. Eric was reported multiple times for physical abuse. Furthermore, when multiple Family Assessment cases were opened on this preschool child, the allegations were physical abuse, not neglect.  Eric suffered injuries on multiple occasions in locations suggestive of physical abuse.

In keeping with Family Assessment protocol, Eric did not receive a multidisciplinary response that involved law enforcement. The events that caused his injuries were not investigated from either a law enforcement or social services standpoint. A discussion of neglect might serve Mr. Thompson well in his opinion piece, but Eric Dean suffered repeated physical abuse and ultimately homicide, not neglect.

It certainly is easy to speculate that Eric’s case was simply an anomaly. Maybe the physical abuse of Eric should have been assigned for an Investigative Response rather than a Family Assessment Response. Maybe this was simply an error made by an incompetent worker or supervisor and not indicative of a systemic problem. In fact, Mr. Thompson says, “failure in both tracks may be more the result of failing to follow the intervention protocol than a failure of the protocol itself.”

I would submit that nothing happened in the case of Eric Dean that does not happen every day in Minnesota, and has not been happening every day in Minnesota for years. Further, I would submit that anyone with even a passing interest in this subject is well aware of this. One could speculate that the incidents of physical abuse opened as Family Assessments for Eric Dean are not in line with our state statutes, which require cases of “substantial child endangerment” to receive an Investigative Response. But, it is obvious that such misclassifications of abuse cases occur frequently.

In Minnesota it is rare that Child Protective Services will accept a report related to physical abuse unless the child has an injury. Despite the fact that most children with physical abuse cases have injuries, approximately 5,000 cases of physical abuse received a Family Assessment Response in 2012. This is in contrast to approximately 1,400 cases opened for Investigation.

Even a casual observer would understand that there are many other children with injuries, just like Eric, who receive a Family Assessment response. Furthermore, this is not a new phenomenon and there is a clear trend of increasing numbers of children reported for physical abuse receiving a Family Assessment Response. This is information is published every year by the Department of Human Services, Mr. Thompson’s former employer.

Mr. Thompson points out that protective service dispositions were made in 16 percent of Family Assessments. This number must be put into context. Both Family Assessment and Family Investigation utilize the Structured Decision Making Family Risk Assessment. In 2012, 25.7 percent of families who received Family Assessments were deemed to be at high risk of future child maltreatment. Another 57.9 percent were at moderate risk of future maltreatment. Given these numbers one can hardly support an argument that it is an anomaly that Eric Dean did not receive a protective service disposition despite being at high risk of future maltreatment.

It is time for Minnesota to examine Family Assessment Response from multiple perspectives, including the perspective of our abused children.

Mark Hudson is a Child Abuse Pediatrician with the Children’s Hospitals and Clinics of Minnesota, and a member of Minnesota’s Child Protection Task Force. 

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