Twin Cities metro counties at odds over case of girl, 8, beaten at school by momSocorro Eaton was convicted Thursday in Ramsey County (N.D.) District Court of malicious punishment of a child and will be sentenced Dec. 14. But her daughter's future is less certain -- and the actions of Dakota County staff raise questions about how safe she will be.
By: Emily Gurnon, St. Paul Pioneer Press / MCT
Socorro Eaton's daughter deserved a beating, Eaton believed. And it didn't matter that the girl's entire second-grade class in St. Paul was there to see it.
But within hours, her 8-year-old daughter had been placed in emergency foster care. Child protection in Dakota County, where the family lived, followed up. Two weeks later, she was returned to her mother. Three weeks after that, she was removed again and remains away from her mother's home, living with her father.
Eaton was convicted Thursday in Ramsey County District Court of malicious punishment of a child and will be sentenced Dec. 14.
But her daughter's future is less certain -- and the actions of Dakota County staff raise questions about how safe she will be.
"I really am concerned about this child," said Assistant Ramsey County Attorney Yasmin Mullings, speaking at a July 20 pretrial hearing.
"This is unusual in that these are the types of behavior that (usually) occur inside the home only," Mullings said. "That this behavior happened in a school and in such a blatant way leaves me (with) extreme concern of what is happening in the home."
She noted that only when the girl was punched in the classroom June 14 did child protection get involved.
After the school incident, the child told police and a doctor that her mother had hit her with a belt on more than one occasion. She had telltale parallel welts on her back.
On the witness stand last week, Eaton denied using a belt to hit any of
her four children -- including a 10- year-old daughter and twin 4-year-olds, who were temporarily removed from Eaton's home after the school incident.
Eaton's attorney, Leah Morgan, said that child protection workers were giving Eaton high marks for her work with them on improving her parenting skills since the incident. They believe the girl -- whose first initial is J. -- should go home, Morgan said.
But Ramsey County District Judge Margaret Marrinan denied a defense motion Thursday that the no-contact order be lifted.
Factors in removing children
Marrinan explained Friday:
Eaton struck her child in front of a teacher and 19 other children, the judge said. She was constantly agitated in court, shaking her head and mouthing things. And she has failed to check in weekly with the agency overseeing her conditional release from jail.
"Add that to these other factors and it does not give me a lot of confidence about how this child would be treated (at home)," the judge said.
Removing a child from his or her home is complicated, and workers must weigh several factors. State law requires that "reasonable efforts" be made to "eliminate the need for removal and to reunite the child with the child's family at the earliest possible time ..."
An exception is made when a parent "has subjected a child to egregious harm." What happened to J. does not appear to constitute egregious harm as defined by state law.
Sharon Madsen, a spokeswoman for Dakota County, said officials there could not comment, because the case involved confidential information.
'Safety net' in place
Two Ramsey County court hearings in July in the criminal case shed light on decisions made by child protection -- and why the judge and prosecutor were so critical of those moves.
The incident at Bruce Vento Elementary School took place on the last day of school, June 14.
A Dakota County social worker, Susan Boreland, conducted an investigation and, within a week, wrote a letter stating she believed no assault or injury occurred and that the no-contact order should be lifted, prosecutor Mullings said in the July 20 hearing.
Boreland also decided to place J. with her father, who has an extensive criminal record that includes convictions for kidnapping, domestic assault, drug possession and providing false information to police.
J. remains in her father's custody, the girl said during her mother's trial this past week.
Based on the initial child-protection investigation and information from the social worker, Ramsey County District Judge George Stephenson canceled the no-contact order in Eaton's case June 30, and J. returned home.
Defense attorney Morgan told the judge that child protection had been working to put a "safety net" in place for J.
Eaton had been cooperating with child protection, she said. The girl provided "the names of her sister and her best friend, all of whom live nearby and can come over to help at any time," Morgan said. And Dakota County assigned J. a guardian ad litem to represent her interests. The guardian ad item, Jake Trotzky-Sirr, gave J. his card and said she could call him if she were ever afraid.
Judge weighs in
In the meantime, another child protection worker, Betsy Dantoft, had taken over the case in early July. During the second of her two visits to the family's home, J. was not present. The mother said things were fine.
Marrinan was appalled.
"The daughter should have been there," the judge said at the July 20 hearing. "I think that's extremely sloppy work by something that calls itself child protection....
"I'm familiar with how Ramsey County handles things, but Dakota County is like another country, frankly."
She also speculated on how much help a young child would get from a business card.
"I'm not impressed with the fact that a guardian ad litem gives his card to an 8-year-old kid and says, 'If you have problems, give me a call,' " she said.
She ordered July 20 that the no-contact order be reinstated.
Another hearing was set for July 29.
Dantoft testified at that hearing that she had spoken with J. four times -- twice privately -- and visited the family twice, including the one occasion when J. was not there.
Her mother told the child protection worker that J. was at a sleepover and could be called to come home. Not necessary, Dantoft told Eaton.
"I guess at this point in time, I don't feel that there is a need for the no-contact order," the child protection worker testified. "(J.) has really shared that she feels safe with her mom and is very confused about what's going on and would like to return to her mom's home."
Mullings, the prosecutor, was not satisfied.
"What we have is, at most, a cursory (review), where the child protection worker comes in and makes an assessment largely based upon self-reporting (by the mother)," Mullings said.
She noted that J. has a "documented history of not speaking up," having never told anyone about the beatings before one was witnessed at the school.
Marrinan ordered July 29 that Eaton could have supervised visits with her daughter.
'System failing you'
Morgan, Eaton's defense attorney, said Friday that she has been cooperative with child protection "since Day One" and taken all the required steps, including parenting classes, counseling with her daughter and supervised visits with J.
Dakota County continues to recommend that J. be returned home. But "none of that favorable information was allowed into the criminal case," Morgan said.
Marrinan told Eaton on July 20 not to lose hope.
"This is a question of the system failing you and your daughter," the judge said. "We're going to just see that (Dakota County) follow(s) through with what they're supposed to do."
Emily Gurnon can be reached at 651-228-5522.
TIMELINE: CHILD PROTECTION FOR 8-YEAR-OLD 'J'
June 14: Mother Socorro Eaton beats daughter J. at St. Paul school. J. placed in emergency foster care.
June 16: Ramsey County District Judge Michael Monahan issues an order barring contact between mother and daughter. Dakota County places J. with her father.
June 21: Dakota County child protection worker Susan Boreland recommends J. return home.
June 30: No-contact order lifted by Ramsey County District Judge George Stephenson on information from Dakota County.
July 20: No-contact order reinstated by Ramsey County District Judge Margaret Marrinan, who is assigned as trial judge.
Oct. 27: Eaton convicted in Ramsey County District Court of malicious punishment. Marrinan rejects a defense motion to cancel the no-contact order.
Distributed by MCT Information Services