Defining Child Exposure to Domestic Violence as Neglect: Minnesota's Difficult Experience

Article excerpt

In 1999, the Minnesota state legislature amended the definition of child neglect to include a child s exposure to family violence. What was seen initially as a simple change brought about great turmoil in Minnesota's child protective services. This article reconstructs how this legislative change occurred, what resulted from the changed neglect definition, and what lessons may be drawn from Minnesota's difficult experience.

The Minnesota legislature's actions must be placed in the context of a larger national examination of children's exposure to adult domestic violence that was underway in 1999 and continues today (see Weithorn, 2001). The National Council of Juvenile and Family Court Judges (NCJFCJ), along with the federal government and private foundations, had undertaken a national effort to improve the response of the courts, domestic violence programs, and child welfare agencies to families in which both adult domestic violence and child maltreatment or exposure to violence were occurring (NCJFCJ, 1998, 1999). In a related effort, the National Association of Public Child Welfare Administrators (2003) published national guidelines for responding to children exposed to domestic violence. Furthermore, the National Conference of State Legislatures had widely distributed a number of magazine articles, briefs, and a book that addressed this issue to state legislators (see Walton, 2003a, 2003b). These national organizations undertook this work in part as a result of a growing body of research revealing that almost half of the families in which child maltreatment occurs also show evidence of domestic violence (Appel & Holden, 1998; Edleson, 1999b; McGuigan & Pratt, 2001; O'Leary, Slep, & O'Leary, 2000) and that children exposed to adult domestic violence may experience subsequent negative developmental outcomes (Edleson, 1999a; Fantuzzo & Mohr, 1999; Margolin, 1998; Onyskiw, 2003; Rossman, 2001). The concern raised by all of these efforts generated great interest among policymakers and program planners across the country and resulted in a number of federally and privately funded demonstration projects (see http:// www.thegreenbook.info).

It was in this social and political environment that individual legislators took leadership in the Minnesota legislature, successfully seeking to amend the definition of child neglect to add children who were exposed to violence.

MINNESOTA'S EXPERIENCE

Several committees of the 1999 Minnesota legislature chose the state's child welfare system as a focus of change during that session. As a part of this focus and backed by bipartisan support, legislators identified the goal of improving child protective services statewide. State Senator Jane Ranum (D-Minneapolis), a strong advocate for children and then chair of the state senate Judiciary Committee, made improvements to this system her top priority that year. As a part of updating child protective services, Ranum, along with state Senator Sheila Kiscaden (R-Rochester) and other legislators visited several cities to learn more about programs available across the country. For example, some legislators visited St. Louis to examine Missouri's differential response system, and in Detroit, legislators studied Michigan's "Families First" family preservation program as well as the use of "open courts," which allow public access to proceedings in juvenile courts. At the time, Minnesota primarily provided one avenue through child protective services, and the courts ruled on child neglect and abuse cases in closed and confidential hearings. The legislature enacted state guidelines in 1999 that authorized county child protection agencies to develop differential or, as the legislation called it, an "alternative response" to child maltreatment reports. The legislation permitted voluntary assessments and services to support families where the risk to children was assessed to be lower than those receiving traditional child welfare services. …