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Kyle Potter, Published June 19 2013

Past complaints at Moorhead home where baby lived raise questions

MOORHEAD – Police here visited Andrew Sandstrom’s home three times to check on the welfare of his children in the three years before he left his 5-month-old daughter in a hot van here last week, killing the baby girl and prompting prosecutors to file a charge of manslaughter against the 24-year-old father.

The prior contact police had with the family raises the question: What, if anything, could officials have done to intervene earlier?

In the criminal complaint filed against Sandstrom on Tuesday, prosecutors cited a pattern of neglect found from three stops to Sandstrom’s home dating back to 2010, most recently in November. Christiana Sandstrom died June 11 after he left her in the family’s van for hours. He told police he took a nap while watching his six kids, all under the age of 8.

A local attorney said the information from that criminal complaint – which describes a filthy house where children roamed without supervision – was likely not enough for Clay County Social Services to step in and remove Sandstrom’s six children from the house. In those three separate visits, Moorhead police decided the children weren’t in immediate danger.

The decision to pull children from a home is a balancing act between trying to preserve a family and ensure a child’s welfare, said Ken Kohler, a former Clay County prosecutor. And state law gives little guidance on how to make that decision, he said.

“You look at a minimum standard, not whether this is an ideal home,” Kohler said. “It’s a very intrusive situation in pulling kids because you do harm to the kids. You do harm to the family unit.”

‘Our hands are tied’

In Clay County, 209 children were moved from their homes in 2011, according to the most recent report on child welfare from the Minnesota Department of Human Services. That includes children moved to foster homes due to abuse or neglect from a parent, as well as teens struggling with substance abuse who go to a juvenile correctional facility or a treatment center. The majority of children moved out of their homes were older than 15.

That amounts to 15.3 children placed out-of-home for every 1,000 children in Clay County, higher than the statewide rate of 8.9 children.

Clay County Social Services investigated reports of neglect for 23 children in 2011 and found that 17 had been neglected, according to the statewide report. The county also met with the families of 93 children after neglect had been reported to talk about safety concerns in a “family assessment.”

In all, Clay County received an average of about 246 maltreatment reports from 2007 to 2011. Maltreatment ranges from neglect to physical and sexual abuse as well as medical neglect.

Across Minnesota, 14 children died as a result of abuse or neglect in 2011. The statewide report does not track county-by-county deaths.

Officials from Clay County Social Services declined to comment for this story.

In Cass County, child protection supervisor Linda Dorff said her department generally looks into about 1,200 child protection reports a year. About 10 percent of those end with some type of court action, which could include removal from the parent’s house, she said.

Dorff said the community often wishes the county would do more to intervene in child welfare cases, while families wish they would butt out of their private lives.

“Our hands are tied,” Dorff said. “We only have so much capacity to make changes.”

No immediate danger

Moorhead police handle child welfare checks based on complaints and forward concerns on to Clay County Social Services. But police can also have children immediately moved if officers determine they’re in “immediate danger,” Lt. Tory Jacobson said.

That wasn’t the case in any of the three checks on Sandstrom’s children in southern Moorhead, Jacobson said.

In Moorhead police’s first visit to his home in September 2010, officers found a then-6-month-old girl sleeping unattended, face-down in a crib while responding to a report of two toddlers wandering outside in the rain without jackets, according to the criminal complaint. In that visit and another four months later, an officer noted a generally messy apartment that, “for the sake of the children … needed to get cleaned up.”

On Jan. 12, 2011, a teacher reported that three of the Sandstrom children hadn’t been to school for a week and that the family’s home had no electricity or food.

Officers who went to the apartment saw clothes and toys scattered throughout the home, so much that the floor couldn’t be seen.

Police told Andrew Sandstrom they would file a report with Clay County Social Services and warned him he might hear from a social worker in the future, according to the complaint.

On Nov. 14, 2012, a person walking across the street from the apartment at 1003 19th St. S. saw an unsupervised 4-year-old boy run near the street, climb into a van and shut the door. After that report, Clay County Social Services contacted the Sandstroms “regarding appropriate supervision for their children,” the complaint states.

Clay County Social Services didn’t immediately respond Wednesday to an open records request seeking information about those three incidents.

After Christiana’s death, a judge ruled on June 13 that Sandstrom’s remaining five children, who were with his wife, Shayna Sandstrom, should be placed in foster care.

Clay County Social Services specifically cited the home’s condition – with a backed up toilet filled with human feces and rotten food leaking from the refrigerator – as evidence that the parents couldn’t properly care for their children.

The Sandstroms will need to complete a case plan set by social workers to get custody of their children – three boys ages 6, 5, and 1½ along with two girls ages 7 and 3.

Kohler said most social services workers he’s spoken with wish they had more leeway to pull children from a potentially dangerous house, and think that children are returned to problematic homes too soon.

“You’re in a real touchy area, to say the least,” Kohler said.

Year-by-year neglect reports in Clay County

From 2007 through 2011, these are the number, respectively, of family assessments, reports of child neglect and the number of those reports where child neglect was found in Clay County.

A family assessment is a meeting to discuss safety concerns after neglect is reported, while a report of child neglect stems from a more serious neglect allegation.

(Family assessments – neglect investigated – neglect found)

2011: 93 – 23 – 17

2010: 101 – 12 – 9

2009: 125 – 26 – 9

2008: 140 – 56 – 28

2007: 137 – 56 – 36

Source: Minnesota Department of Human Services


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Readers can reach Forum reporter Kyle Potter at (701) 241-5502