FARGO — Three children recently died within a 60-mile radius of here, allegedly at the hands of caregivers who should have protected them.

Linda Dorff, Cass County Social Services division manager, fears we'll see more deaths.

"That worries me. Scares me," Dorff said.

On April 9, 6-year-old Justis Burland died in Fergus Falls, Minn., after being repeatedly beaten, tortured and neglected for months. He had injuries from head to toe.

On April 10, 3-year-old Winter Sky Barker of Breckenridge, Minn., died after his stomach was ruptured by a blow to the abdomen. His body was also covered in bumps and bruises.

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Two weeks later, charges were filed in the West Fargo death of 8-month-old Clara Jones, who drowned March 7 after being left alone in a bathtub.

According to court documents, a history of abuse or neglect appeared in each case; and in Burland's case, family members say they contacted child protection services prior to his death to express concerns, but "nothing was done."

Representatives from Otter Tail and Wilkin counties in Minnesota and Cass County, N.D., where the crimes occurred, said they can't comment on pending cases due to data privacy laws.

Deb Sjostrom, Otter Tail County Human Services director, said privacy is the rule in virtually all child protection cases, which means they can't talk about success stories either.

"Unfortunately, I don't get to defend people who do good work everyday," Sjostrom said.

Tamra Jokela, social services supervisor in Otter Tail County's Child and Family Services Unit, said people often aren't happy with their work.

"We either do too much or we don't do enough," Jokela said.

Becky Tripp, social services supervisor for Wilkin County Family Services, said despite being viewed in a negative light at times, they do have a positive impact.

"We know we make families and children's lives better and we know we save lives," Tripp said.

Safety is 'number one goal'

A child abuse or neglect case only begins when a report is made by a concerned family member or citizen, or a mandated reporter, such as a teacher or health care worker.

"There's no ability to screen something if we don't get a report," Sjostrom said.

Reports can be made to social services or law enforcement in just about any manner; in person, by phone, email or letter. Even second- or third-hand information is accepted.

Once received, a social service team runs the information through screening criteria laid out by their respective states.

In Minnesota, if a report meets the definition of child maltreatment, it is 'screened in' and social workers decide whether to do a family assessment, family investigation or facility investigation, if it involves a child care center or similar facility.

If 'screened out,' it's not considered a child protection issue and the family is referred to alternate services or programs. Whether screened in or out, law enforcement is notified.

In Cass County, 3,027 reports of possible child abuse or neglect were received in 2016, with 1,284 families assigned for assessment. There were fewer reports - 2,809 - the following year, but assessments were higher at 1,368.

In Otter Tail County, 929 child maltreatment reports were received in 2016, resulting in 145 family investigations.

The county took 968 such reports last year, resulting in 205 family investigations.

In Wilkin County, 133 reports were received in 2016, resulting in 18 family investigations. It took in 181 reports last year, resulting in 13 family investigations.

All three counties have social workers on call 24/7 to deal with off-hours emergencies.

"The goal is always to ensure safety, that's our number one goal," Dorff said.

Misconceptions about work

As lead social worker in the Otter Tail County Child and Family Services Unit, Stephanie Olson is trained to do forensic interviews.

They're meant to gather factual information from a child about alleged child abuse that will stand up to scrutiny in court, and Olson said they're likely the most important interviews she does.

She asks open-ended questions, allowing the child to tell their story.

"I'm not going to ask them questions that I want the answer to, or how I want them to answer it," she said.

Another misconception is that their agencies can, and aim to, remove children from a home.

Only the courts and law enforcement can do so, and Dorff said separating families is not a goal.

"That's not where we start. We start with trying to work with children and parents to build that family structure so that they can be a family," she said.

Their agencies also get reports, at times, from a parent seemingly trying to gain ammunition against an ex-spouse in a child custody dispute.

There are better avenues for that than child protective services, Olson said.

Safety steps to take now

In each of the recent child deaths, the people believed to have been responsible have been criminally charged.

Bobbie Bishop, 40, and Walt Wynhoff, 42, of Fergus Falls, face charges in the death of Justis Burland, including second-degree murder without intent and first-degree manslaughter.

Described as a "family friend," Bishop had temporary custody of Justis and his surviving twin brother, Xavier.

Tracy Brant, 35, of Breckenridge, faces charges in the death of son Winter Barker, including second-degree murder and malicious punishment of a child.

Spencer Foner, 27, of West Fargo, faces charges in the death of daughter Clara Jones, including manslaughter and child neglect.

Whether the deaths could have been prevented may or may not come out later at trial, but social workers say people can take steps right now to help make children safer.

Besides promptly reporting possible abuse or neglect, they can sign up with their respective county to be a foster family.

All three counties run far short in foster care and often scramble to find places for children to stay who've been removed from their home.

If you see parents who are struggling, who don't have a network of friends or who have addiction issues, ask how you can help, Sjostrom suggests, indicating it takes a community to keep kids safe.

"It's not just on the parents. It's certainly not just on our agency. It's on everybody," she said.


Child Maltreatment Caseloads

Cass County, N.D.

• 284 families in case management stage (projected), handled by 16 workers

Otter Tail County, Minn.

• 151 families in assessment/investigation stage, handled by 5.5 workers

• 82 families in case management stage, handled by 7 workers

Wilkin County, Minn.

• 19 families in assessment/investigation stage

• 30 families in case management stage

• Three workers handle all aspects

Source: Cass, Otter Tail and Wilkin Counties