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“Heaven’s Law” could protect children from abuse – even after a move

The 18 months Heaven Watkins spent in kinship foster care were some of the best in her short life.

The girl, who had cerebral palsy, was surrounded by relatives who loved her, helped her walk, potty trained her, and caught her up on dozens of overdue appointments. But then she was returned to the custody of her mother, who moved to Virginia, Heaven’s relative, Akeeylah Watkins, told the House Health and Human Services Finance Division Thursday.

In Virginia, Heaven was hospitalized for nearly a week to receive treatment for severe burns inflicted by her mother’s boyfriend. But child protective workers didn’t know about the family’s history in Minnesota, and Heaven was released into the care of her abusers again.

She was beaten to death a few months later, Watkins said.

Rep. Rena Moran (DFL-St. Paul) sponsors HF563, also known as “Heaven’s Law,” which would require child welfare agencies to search central child abuse and neglect registries in other states while conducting investigations and determining whether child protective services are needed. This requirement would extend to states where the alleged offender resided during the previous five years.

That way if a parent with a history of abuse moves, and that abuse continues, welfare workers will be able to catch the early warning signs and hopefully intervene appropriately.

The bill was held over, as amended, for possible omnibus bill inclusion. There is no Senate companion.

“If there had been some type of compact … where Virginia could have done a search,” Heaven’s death could possibly have been prevented, Moran said.

Virginia has already passed a law requiring social workers to contact other states for information when investigating child abuse allegations, also inspired by Heaven’s death, Moran said.

The bill would also require the Department of Human Services to investigate and report on ways to improve information sharing between states regarding child maltreatment. A report would be due the Legislature by Feb. 1, 2020.

While the fiscal note is awaiting final approval, the changes are expected to have an initial one-time cost around $27,000, said Doug Berg from the nonpartisan House Fiscal Analysis Department.

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