In August 2006, Kimberly White sat in a Hennepin County courtroom and signed away her rights as a parent. She was addicted to crack cocaine, had had numerous run-ins with the law and knew she was unfit to be a mother to her three young children.
Nearly five years later, White says she has cleaned up, is on a new track and wants her kids back. What started out as wishful thinking could become possible. The Legislature is considering a proposal that would allow parents who have had their parental rights terminated to get a second chance at parenthood.
"I'm not the same person I was," said White, 26, of Minneapolis.
Termination of parental rights affects nearly 700 children in Minnesota each year, who are then placed into foster care while they await adoption.
The proposed law would allow those children who have not yet begun the adoption process the chance to be reunited with their birth parents after at least two years of separation. Parents have their rights taken away for a variety of reasons, including drug, sexual or physical abuse. Under the measure, parents who abused their children could not get them back.
It is a touchy issue. Some lawmakers argue parents and kids deserve a second shot to be together. Others worry the law court hurt children and send the wrong message to bad parents.
Rep. Mary Liz Holberg, R-Lakeville, said if the bill becomes law, reunification would be rare.
"Is this going to solve all the problems in the system? No," said Holberg, a co-sponsor. "It might help a handful of children each year that are still looking for their place to belong."
Says Rep. John Lesch, DFL-St. Paul: "This is a body that believes in redemption, believes in redemption for parents who have screwed up and have come around again."
Rep. Debra Hilstrom, DFL-Brooklyn Center, disagrees.
"Every child wants to be loved and always looks back and says, 'My parents are coming back for me,'" she said. "This gives false hope."
The measure might not go far this session. Gov. Mark Dayton has not said whether he supports the bill. A similar Senate bill was just introduced last week.
It also could have fiscal problems.
John Kingrey, executive director of the Minnesota County Attorneys Association, said it would be expensive. To work, it would require ongoing monitoring. Further, he said, it will be hard to justify putting resources into reuniting a family when initial terminations are so expensive and laborious.
He also said if the bill becomes law, it might be harder to get children to cooperate with foster care and adoption services.
"It flies in the face of permanency," he said. "You need to say this is final, but now we're saying, well, it's final unless someone changes their mind."
Victor Vieth, executive director of the Winona-based National Child Protection Training Center, said if termination decisions become reversible, they might also become less considered and more frequent.
"I think this is a step backwards," Vieth said. "I'm not sure I see that is in the best interest of the child."
If the bill becomes law, White and other parents would have to prove by "clear and convincing evidence" that reunification is in the child's best interest.
White said getting her children back would help them.
After she signed away her rights four years ago, her mother adopted her kids and White could see them often.
But then her mother died and her 20-year-old sister cared for the children. When social services found out about the arrangement, the three kids went into foster care. That's where they've been for the past nine months.
"They're with strangers right now," she said. "I worry about my kids a lot."
She wants the three kids back so they can join her and the baby she had since they were taken away.
Nine other states have laws similar to the proposal. But even in those states reunification is uncommon. In Washington, only 28 petitions for reinstatement of rights were filed in three years. And only 10 were granted.
Many of those states require children to be at least 12 years old to return to their birth parents. The Minnesota proposal has no such age requirement.
Rep. Tim Mahoney, DFL-St. Paul, said it should. He believes only older children, who have been separated for longer than two years, should be eligible.
"If we've terminated your parental rights, there's an awfully good reason," Mahoney said. "Two years is not very long if you've made a mess of your life."
McKenzie Martin is a University of Minnesota student on assignment for the Star Tribune.