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MN Supreme Court says child protection can be held responsible for 4-year-old’s death

Eric Dean’s stepmother murdered the young boy despite numerous reports made to child protection that he was being abused; case sparked statewide reforms

ST PAUL, Minn. — The Minnesota Supreme Court ruled today that Pope County child protection workers can be held responsible for the death of 4-year-old Eric Dean, who was murdered by his stepmother despite numerous reports that the boy was being abused.

A lawsuit filed by a trustee representing Dean’s heirs accused Pope County and its child protection workers of negligence in failing to respond to the abuse reports before he died in March 2013. 

Both a district court judge and the state appeals court ruled that the defendants were immune to litigation under state common law, which states that government employees are not liable unless their actions were intentionally or maliciously wrong.

Credit: KARE 11
Eric Dean's caregivers filed numerous reports with Pope County child protection that the boy was being abused.

The state high court ruled that child protection workers don’t fall under common law, but rather the Minnesota Reporting of Maltreatment of Minors Act – the RMMA.  

The RMMA grants immunity to social workers so long as they act in good faith and exercise due care when responding to abuse reports.

The case will go back to the district court and for trial, said Paul Peterson, the attorney representing Dean’s heirs.

“If we can show that they acted negligently and without due care, they can be held responsible,” Peterson said.

Credit: KARE 11
The Pope County Health and Human Services office in Glenwood, Minn.

Peterson said the court ruling today could have significant ramifications for child protection workers, in that they can be held responsible if they negligently fail to follow-through on abuse reports.

Dean’s case sparked statewide outrage and reforms following separate investigations by the Star Tribune and KARE 11 that detailed how 15 abuse reports were made to Pope County child protection about Dean before he died.

Child protection workers failed to cross-report nearly all of that information to police, despite requirements to do so under state law.

Then Gov. Mark Dayton appointed a child protection task force, which recommended numerous reforms to better protect abused children that were ultimately passed by the legislature.