I swore never to be silent whenever and wherever human beings endure suffering and humiliation. We must take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented. Sometimes we must interfere.
Elie Wiesel, Holocaust Survivor
Three-year-old Eric Dean was a quiet kid who craved attention and loved to be held and hugged. A special-education teacher described Eric as a kid who was loving, laughed easily, and wanted to please his teacher.
Eric routinely came to day care with bruises and bite marks on his face. At three, he was already a year behind in speech development. His stepmother grabbed him and yelled at him in front of child-care workers. She demanded that the teachers not show him affection because, she said, he didn’t deserve it. A teacher gave Eric new shoes to replace those so ragged they fell off his feet. Outraged, his stepmother said he couldn’t have them until he was a good boy. A special-education teacher began to work with Eric. When he began to speak, his teacher asked him how the injuries on his body happened and he responded, “Mommy bite.”
Minneapolis Star Tribune reporter Brandon Stahl reported in his stellar special report that by the time Eric died at age four, 15 reports of abuse had been filed on his behalf. Only one report was investigated and that one–of a broken arm–found, wrongly I believe, that no abuse had happened. Minnesota law requires that abuse reports are given to the police; only one of 15 was.
On February 26, 2013, Eric’s stepmother, Amanda Peltier, “…slapped Eric across the face, bit him and threw him across a room.” Eric screamed and cried, then started to complain that his stomach hurt. He vomited throughout the day. The next day Peltier spanked Eric. His condition continued to deteriorate. He went into shock and became delirious. When he choked on his own vomit, his father finally called 911. He died the next day. A perforation in his small intestine leaked fluid into the space around his organs. Enzymes that digest food digested his body.
Robert Greenleaf, author of the seminal work, Servant Leadership, wrote that the evil, the insane, the irresponsible, and the immature have been with us forever. The real problem is the good people who go to sleep and do not stand up and bear witness for human suffering of every kind.
Eric was allegedly abused by his mother’s boyfriend. He went to live with his father and abusive stepmother. Day-care workers saw the injuries and reported them to Pope County. One who made several reports gave up after the county discouraged her from making more reports. Pope County failed to notify police as required by law. At one point, the county, instead of finding out what happened, passed the family on to a voluntary program called family assessment. The program–intended to help people become better parents in low risk situations–is now used as a dumping ground for children so that counties don’t have to investigate. In Minnesota that program is now used in more than 70% of the cases.
No one cared enough for this helpless child to save his life. No one in our fragmented world took responsibility. It is not that someone couldn’t save him; no one would save Eric.
The greatest blame lies with Pope County. They are supposed to care: to be educated, informed, and experienced. I was a trained, experienced, and successful investigator as an agent in the U.S. Secret Service, in the business world, and as a management consultant. I believe that enough evidence was available to find cause to remove this child from his abuser. But they didn’t investigate well or thoroughly. They just didn’t do their job; they shuffled paper. The bottom line: Eric Dean was being murdered on their watch and they should have taken right action and saved his life and they didn’t.
I understand people being scared to act for fear of making a mistake, fear of someone being mad at them, maybe retaliating against them. I have felt the fear of losing my job for doing something that was right.
But here’s the deal:
Sometimes we have to just listen to our own voice, to take action that we know is right, to go against the grain, the culture, or the demands for conformity. Sometimes we need to find our courage and take bold action until our voice is heard. If a daycare provider cannot get child protection to act, then join with colleagues and go to the police, the clergy, and to local and state political leaders. Don’t stop until someone with authority helps. If you work in a child protection department that doesn’t do its job become a whistleblower or quit your job and take action. A job with the county isn’t worth more than a child’s life.
Eric’s story cries out for accountability not just for Amanda Peltier who was found guilty of premeditated murder and sentenced to prison for life but also accountability for the Pope County, Minnesota government that systemically failed in its fundamental duty to protect a child.
I suspect there are many abuse cases throughout Minnesota and the United States that are being given the same fast shuffle and that Eric’s circumstances are only the tip of the iceberg of potential tragedies.
I call on Minnesota Governor Mark Dayton, a caring man, and our state legislators to get involved, take action, and put an end to malfeasance by those who are supposed to protect children.
I hope you will too.