MINNEAPOLIS – Each day the Family Enhancement Center in Minneapolis offers Twin Cities families a lifeline, working to prevent child abuse and tragic outcomes like the beating death of 3-year-old Dante Sears of Sandstone. His mother's boyfriend is now charged with his murder.
The crime hits the staff of the non-profit Family Enhancement Center deeply. They most often see scenarios of child abuse when a parent enters a new relationship, whether it's a boyfriend, girlfriend or stepparent.
Family Enhancement Center executive director Libby Bergman, who is also a member of the Hennepin County child abuse prevention advisory team, says a biological connection to a child often protects them from abuse.
"And also being around when that child was first born so you can create that bond with a child," Bergman said. "Often they are stepping into a situation where a child's behavior -- they don't understand them or have tools to manage a child's behavior."
Families counseled at the Family Enhancement Center turn to limited caregivers because of economic struggles and lack of childcare options in rural areas or overnight shifts.
"They are working two to three jobs to make ends meet and they are looking for childcare not affordable to them. So they are in the situation of being forced to get someone to take care of their child -- and if that person seems okay, or their only option, they might take it and hope for the best," said Bergman.
So Bergman recommends parents first evaluate partners caring for their child, from gut instinct to background checks.
"I think that is an important question to ask is – how were you raised as a child? What kind of discipline did your parents use with you and what do you think about it?" Bergman said.
The most common red flags in a partner providing childcare include chemical abuse, untreated mental illness, a history of the caregiver being a victim of childhood abuse and anger management problems, according to Bergman.
Bergman said children often give warning signs too, beyond unexplained injuries.
"Sometimes you can see either fear, they may have sleep disturbance, nightmares and change in their behavior that seem like they are uncomfortable," said Bergman.
Behaviors the Family Enhancement Center knows can be prevented with a call or cry for help.
"It would be helpful if there were more ways parents feel safe asking questions, with more options so they could come forward. Many families are afraid to ask for help because they don't know what is going to happen," Bergman said. "If anything seems suspicious, again reach out."
The Family Enhancement Center is located at 4826 Chicago Avenue South in south Minneapolis. Call 612-827-3028 for help.
Or call the Prevent Child Abuse Minnesota hotline at 1-800-CHILDREN (1-800-244-5373).