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Pope County abuse case exposes problems with system

Startling numbers show the state is missing chances to help children in danger.
Eric Dean

POPE COUNTY – This is a story of a 4-year-old boy and the system that failed to protect him.

It was February 2013 when Eric Dean died an agonizing death. A Pope County jury convicted his father's live-in fiancé, Amanda Peltier, for killing him.

The evidence gathered for her trial provides a rare glimpse inside Minnesota's secretive Child Protection system – and has sparked calls for sweeping reforms.

"That (expletive) kid was constantly on timeout, constantly grounded to the (expletive) table," Peltier told BCA investigators a month after Eric's death.In a recorded interview, she described the pattern of abuse that ended in his death.

When detectives confronted Peltier about bite marks on Eric's body, the detective asked her how many times she bit him.

"Too many," she responded softly.

But her confession wasn't the first time authorities heard of abuse against Eric.

"He was robbed of love in his life," said Colleen Myslicki, one of Eric's former daycare providers.

Myslicki was one of the people whose reports of suspected abuse and neglect were closed – without investigation – by Child Protection officials in Pope County.

Records show the reports to Child Protection began in March 2010. That's when Pope County received a report that Eric was living in dirty conditions and sleeping in a locked room. The county ruled "no maltreatment determined".

There were three more reports made in 2010, and two made in early 2011. Records show none were investigated.

In July 2011, Eric suffered a broken arm. A doctor reported to child protection that the break looked suspicious, but another doctor thought it could have been from a fall.

Once again, Pope County child protection ruled "no maltreatment determined".

By October 2011 workers at Eric's daycare noticed bite marks and scratches on Eric.

"He had, you know, scratches, nail marks on his face, on his head, on his abdomen," said Brandi Knight, another daycare worker. Knight also noticed large bite marks on Eric's head. "Yes, embedded in his head," she said.

Knight worked at Kingdom Kids Child Care Center in Glenwood when Dean attended there. Another teacher at the center reported the injuries to Pope County, but child protection ruled it did not meet the state's "maltreatment criteria".

Before long, Amanda Peltier switched Eric to a different day care -- at Colleen Myslicki's home.

Almost immediately, Myslicki said she noticed bruises.She also says she heard Peltier coach Eric about what happened.

"I heard her say, 'Tell everybody that you fell down and hurt yourself,'" she said in an interview with KARE 11. "I got a funny feeling in my stomach."

The little boy's Special Education teacher also saw the bite marks. And they both snapped pictures of the injuries and reported them to child protection.

It was the 12th report of suspected abuse. Once again, Pope County found no maltreatment.

Colleen Myslicki would make three more reports to child protection. One in February, one in March and one more in August. She filed that report after she said Peltier grabbed Eric from her arms at her daycare, pushed him to the ground and swore at him.

"I saw a very hateful mom, a raging mom, crazy," she said.

In all, between 2010 and 2012, Pope County had 15 chances to intervene, and perhaps save Eric Dean.

It didn't. In most cases, workers didn't even investigate.

When police investigators interviewed Peltier after Eric's death she can be heard calmly admitting to "launching" Eric into something because she was angry with him.

"You said a while ago you sometimes launched him too hard," an investigator told her during the interview. Then he asked, "Monday or Tuesday did you launch him too hard into something?"

"I did launch him Monday or Tuesday," Peltier replied.

"He screamed and he cried and he went upstairs," she told them.

Not long after, Eric started vomiting repeatedly. Peltier and Eric's father waited until the following day before calling 911.

It was too late. Eric died in a hospital the day after.

"I think Eric Dean isn't the only example we've seen in Minnesota over the years," said advocate Rich Gerhman.

Gehrman runs Safe Passage for Children of Minnesota. He points to statistics that show Minnesota screens out 71 percent of child abuse reports, meaning they are never investigated. That's the third highest rate in the nation.

He also said getting information about abuse cases in Minnesota is difficult. In fact, the U.S. Administration for Children and Family has warned Minnesota that in order to comply with federal guidelines it has to make more information public about child protection cases.

In response, Minnesota's Department of Health and Human Services have told federal officials it would propose a bill in the upcoming legislative session that would allow the state to do just that.

After the Star Tribune first reported details about how most suspected child abuse reports went uninvestigated prior to Eric Dean's death, Governor Mark Dayton called the case a "colossal failure."

"The picture of 4-year-old Eric Dean," said Governor Mark Dayton, "will haunt me for a longtime."

The picture showed the boy smiling with cuts and bruises on his face.

Dayton and a number of state lawmakers are calling for sweeping reforms in the state's child protection system.

Those changes are too late for Eric. And the people who tried to save him are left to wonder if the changes will be enough.

"Nobody should go through that. No one should have to lose a loved one like this," said Myslicki. "He was robbed of love in his life."

If you think a child is being abused or neglected, call the county the child lives in to report it. If you feel the child is in immediate danger, call 911.

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