Pensive ParakeetI sent this letter to the Governor’s Task Force earlier today (share it with your contacts);

Dear Governor’s Task Force People,

I’ve been a volunteer CASA guardian ad-Litem since 1996 and witnessed many terrible things being done to children both in and out of child protective services (none of them ever made the paper or received any public awareness).   I helped found and remain on the board at CASA MN and wrote the book INVISIBLE CHILDREN on this topic in 2005.

Nothing in this letter is meant to reflect badly on adoptive or foster families, GALs/social workers, the courts/police/juvenile justice, educators, task force members, or others directly involved in trying to help children in need of protection.  We are doing what we can with the training, resources, and understanding we have.

This letter is intended to bring to your attention the depth and scope of the problems and the high level failures that cause the terrible data and Governor Dayton’s “colossal failure” language for describing child protection in MN.  I have inserted a few personal CASA stories (MT) to exhibit specific system faults that need addressing by your task force.

Until Brandon Stahl took it upon himself to convince his employer (the Star Tribune) that this story was worth covering, no one paid any attention to child protection.  Eric Utne of the Utne Reader told me ten years ago that there was no public appetite for this topic and it would ruin his magazine if he printed my stories.  The Star Tribunes extensive reporting is a rare and positive turn of events that may not be repeated for a very long time.

Thirty years ago, Lois Jergens murdered her four year step son Dennis after years of horrid abuse and then went on to adopt five other children.   The Mayo Clinic had identified her as mentally unstable and suggested to DHS that she not be allowed to adopt children.  Lois’s actions did not make the newspaper for many years and as far as I know, nothing was changed because of it.

When this board is gone, and Brandon Stahl moves on to something else, what will be different for the thousands of children reported to child protective services in MN each year (nationally the figure is six million children reported annually)?

*  Our Child Protection systems are overburdened and ineffective because record keeping is poor and transparency is almost nonexistent. If  we were aware of real conditions, we would discuss and respond to them – but no one knows how many five year olds in child protection are on Prozac, have been sexually abused, deliberately scalded, or have experienced some other form of torture.

When information doesn’t exist neither does the problem; if it had happened we would know about it – we don’t know about it, it did not happen and there is no real issue.

 In the words of;

Former MN Supreme Court Chief Justice Kathleen Blatz, “The difference between that poor child and a felon is about eight years”.

Mike Tikkanen, “The difference between that poor child and a preteen mother with a drug habit and a violent boyfriend is about eight years”.

PHD Kathleen Long, author of the book Angels and Demons, “Our institutions are creating exactly what they were designed to stop”.

Hennepin County Judge Jane Ranum “Kids are slowly being neglected to death”.

The system is not Child Centered.  It is centered around people and institutions providing services.

Millions of dollars go to insular and sclerotic service providers.

There are many reasons for the lack of;

Transparency,

Data collection,

Clear communication

Openness about child protection and issues about services being provided to at risk children.

Our states, counties, and institutions find it difficult to cooperate or share information.

The only children that make it into child protection are the very worst of the worst cases.  County Assessments aside, Eric Dean’s abuse reports were ignored 14 out of 15 times.  The assessment was just one more failure by an overwhelmed system where resources are slim and the understanding and support for what it takes to help at risk children are sorely missing.

(MT) On the 49th police call to the home of a prostitute where gunfire had been repeatedly heard, the 2 young children were finally brought into child protective services for the first time.  The only reason the children were removed from the home on the 49th call was because the seven year old girl tried to kill her four year old sister by jumping on her neck in the presence of the police.  Even though the police had evidence to suspect that the seven year old had been prostituted, they had not removed the children on any of the other 48 calls to the home. 

When I spoke with the juvenile justice officer in the police department, she explained that the overwhelming number of children in violent homes and the impossibility of making life safe for them by a police department was simply beyond their ability with the resources they had.

From a police officer’s perspective, the children are removed for a short period and most likely returned to the family within a few weeks (why bother).  I learned from this not to blame the cops when children remain in toxic homes.

(MT) Andy, seven years old, had been tied to a bed, sexually abused; starved -really really starved, and beaten severely (he was covered from head to foot in bruises – both the front and back of his body, when I met him).  He had been left alone for days in the apartment tied to a bed without food or water over a four year period.

This only happened because the County did not spend the small amount of money to investigate the biological father who had requested custody of the boy.  The father had a *court order from the state of Wisconsin forbidding him from being around young boys because of what he did to them.  This man was also in prison when he requested custody of Andy (this man had spent 2/3 of his adult life in prison at that time).

Think about this… the County did not ask the State for information about the man that had a court order keeping him from being around young boys.  Who are we protecting and how much did the County save by skipping this step?

I calculate the cost of this boy to the County and citizens of the County when he aged out of child protection to be between two and three million dollars  (with modest sums for the teacher he beat up, the people he stabbed and terrible things he has done to others).

Andy has AIDs now and as far as I know, continues to be a state ward .The amount of psychotropic medications I watched him take from the age of seven to when he refused the drugs in his mid-teens is just mind boggling.  The absence of adequate mental health services I believe are largely responsible for his failure to thrive as well as his violence and dangerous life style.  He tried multiple times to kill himself.

Nationally, 80% of children aging out of foster care lead dysfunctional lives.

(MT) My first visit to a CASA guardian case four year old girl was at the suicide ward of Fairview Hospital.  A number of my very young case children tried to kill themselves (some repeatedly).  Social workers warned me early on about suicidal behavior among abused children.

Don Samuels (former Mayoral candidate) spoke of his experience (to me on camera) with a suicidal very young child (for our documentary series).  Don was a CASA guardian ad-Litem also.

I have written (at www.invisiblechildren.org) about the seven year old foster boy that hung himself and left a note (in FL)  about how he hated the Prozac he was forced to take.  Very few people are aware of the terrible traumas children in child protective services have faced and fewer still have any idea of the amounts of Prozac, Ritalin, and other psychotropic medications pumped into five and six year olds in this state (and many other states).

 

Suicidal behaviors in very young children within child protection are not rare.  Repeated traumas in the home and the medications used to stem uncontrollable behaviors go a long way in explaining why this is.  The side effects of psychotropic medications include suicidal ideation.  This is very real in the lives of children in Child Protection and needs to be dealt with.

I have some very personal stories about this and you can ask me for the list of Psyhotropically medicated very young children provided to me by Hennepin County judge Heidi Schellhas. 

The way we deliver most services to abused children is bifurcated (mental health services especially).  There is inadequate understanding of and attention to the traumas inflicted on these children and their damaged mental health.

The use of psychotropic medications on very young children may someday be identified as a crime.  It is certainly a poor substitute for therapy.

It is critical to appreciate that Eric Dean didn’t come close to being involved in child protection because there is little accountability, and every County gets to determine how it will handle its own child protection cases (there is no consistency).

Four MN counties screen out 90% of child abuse reports.

In Eric’s case, 14 of the 15 reports by mandated reporters were dismissed automatically, and the 15th report was an “assessment” that did not even ask “if Eric had been abused”.  Yes, I repeat myself here, it is because mandated reporters are ignored and many people ignore the important information that killed Eric Dean and this needs your attention.

Most social workers, judges, health workers guardians ad-Litem and other service providers spend a little time each month with the child.  Kids quickly determine that they are locked like a cog in a machine where people are making a pretty good living while they suffer in a system that is cold and distant.

*These children have no voice or control in the decisions that rule their lives.

What do you think it would be like to be removed from your birth home, set into a foreign atmosphere (most often with other very damaged children) and know that you are unlike 99% of the rest of the children you interact with at school and on the street?  We have done very little to humanize child protection or the children unfortunate enough to be involved in the system.  This needs to change.

No one speaks for these children, and these kids would not know what to say if they could speak for themselves (could you even ask a five or ten year old child to clearly articulate the issues?)

The stigma of abuse keeps most of kids quiet as they become adults (God help me lead a normal life and leave this abuse and insanity behind me).

Children can’t vote and the legislation to date has not been in their favor;

*8000 families on MN’s subsidized day care waiting lists,

*MN now ranks 47th for amount spent on children in child protection,

*the average child is placed four times,

*80% of children are abused again while in child protection services,

*29% of abused children are sent back to their abusers,

*almost 70% of child abuse calls are screened out – four MN counties screen out 90% of the calls.

Very few legislators have adequate understanding of what it takes to make a more effective child protection system and we as a people don’t understand or like the topic and are practiced at euphemizing, obfuscating, and just ignoring it (anything to not deal openly or candidly about it).

Or, as the Association of MN Counties explained with the MN Office of the Legislative Auditor’s February 2012 evaluation of child protection screening practices across MN;

Child protection agencies adequately administer intake of child maltreatment referral;

 Child protection agencies screening methods are conducive to making objective decisions that are consistent with state law,

 Please appreciate this for being at the very center of the “colossal failure” you and this state are dealing with today.

 The assessment tool has been terribly overused in child maltreatment cases and to see people in favor of this kind of failure is indefensible.

If it is true that “screening methods are conducive to making objective decisions that are consistent with state law”, we are awful people and we don’t value children in MN.

I believe that none of the above proclamations are truthful and they should be seen as shameful euphemizing and self -protection that they are.

Social workers are trained not to speak of their caseloads or stories and this means that abused and neglected children have absolutely no voice in their homes, the courts, the media (except very rarely), or the legislature.

Social workers need to be encouraged to speak for children.  Job turnover and privacy have been used as the excuse against this for far too long.

We don’t need the names (HIPAA compliance).  It’s the numbers we need/the conditions/the data that are important here.

Social worker turnover is a very serious problem and will remain so until these problems are addressed and people working in this field begin to experience more support and success in their work.

Being able to speak openly about issues will lead to better solutions and give social workers a path to identify and address specific issues within the system.

Today, there is a wall of silence and an atmosphere of fear.  From the children’s perspective and a big share of adoptive families you will find a great deal of suffering, much of it caused by the problems facing an overburdened and unresponsive social services system.

To your specific question about the use of assessments in child protection services, please appreciate just how far down the line this question is with regards to stopping the trauma, death and near death that are the lives of little children like Eric Dean.  It is the fact that reports are made and no one listens that is critical. Please address this in your work.

Can you imagine how helpless a child must feel knowing that no one is doing anything to stop his/her horrid torture?

Ignored reports of child abuse by mandated reporters a small part of what led up to Governor Dayton referring to child protection in MN as a “colossal failure”.

Consider the mandated reporters (like me) who gave up when they realized that their calls were a waste of time.  Then think about a greater number of people who don’t report child abuse out of fear of involvement with an overwhelmed system that has frustrated and angered a big percentage of the people that have experienced it.

Assessments don’t investigate the actual report of child abuse.  An assessment offer asks the family if they would “like to have” some services from the County (not if they molested, beat, or burned their child).

The statistics are not good when it comes to people wanting services from the County through assessments.

 Who are we protecting?

I expect some of you will blame me/this letter for being harsh but you cannot blame me for being inaccurate.

My stories and statistics are real. Most of the fifty children I worked with suffered about as much or more abuse than Eric Dean did (but they didn’t die and didn’t make the paper – and no one else knows their stories but me and a few others).

In closing, I remind you that the assessment question is almost a “red herring” and the real problem is the obfuscation surrounding success, failure, and data involving abused and neglected children.  the absence of accurate information or accountability, and the failure to report and track the reality of child abuse and child protective services that have brought us to this point (“colossal failure) and you (the task force) together. 

 Yes, the assessment tool was developed to take the pressure off of overburdened child protection systems.  It needs to be scaled back for use with fairly healthy families and never used where children are being traumatized.  This the task force can fix (and should). 

Most likely, there is very little you can do to make anything happen quickly or dramatically with the core issues as the institutions you are addressing are political and incredibly adverse to change.  In spite of this, it is important that you at least discuss the issues and determine what corrections are possible.

Without continued oversight and harassment of these institutions, there is very little hope that meaningful change can happen before another two, three, or four generations of abused and neglected children go on to have their own families of abused and neglected children, fill our prisons, and trouble our schools and communities.

These children will struggle with behavior problems in schools and on the streets, become pregnant preteen, and many of them will continue on to prisons and jails as they are charged with serious crimes while still juvenile.

Finally, please read my book INVISIBLE CHILDREN (I will provide you copies for free audio or print).

Please consider my assistance or help in any manner in which knowledge, contacts and functional expertise could be of assistance to the task force projects.

 I bring a rich history of involvement with these issues including a current documentary project on this topic with TPT television, a presentation at the United Nations, the founding of KARA, Kids At Risk Action nonprofit, and a genuine desire to protect the children of MN.

Your friend in solving these intractable problems,

Mike Tikkanen

Ps… I believe that you should invite the following people to speak to your task force if you have not already;

Brandon Stahl Brandon.Stahl@startribune.com  – he can tell you just how hard it was to get information and important things that did not get into the newspaper articles in the Tribune.

A spokesperson from the Academy on Violence and Abuse (contact Karla Vaughan karla@avahealth.org) – medical professionals determined to bring attention to what trauma does to children and powerful ideas for dealing with it.

Ps2… The only way I see any lasting change is to recommend an ongoing review board (like the Citizens Review Board for the Police Department).  After this task force has finished its work, the critical issues of child abuse and child protection will still exist and remain ignored as they have so long been ignored.  Please don’t let that happen.

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