A coalition including parents, lawmakers and social workers plans to work this summer to find common ground on how to improve treatment of black children in Minnesota’s child protection system after legislative efforts stalled this session.
The African American Family Preservation and Child Welfare Disproportionality Act failed to advance for the second year in a row, after advocates tried to make the case that it would keep more black children with their families instead of foster care. State statistics show that black youth are three times more likely than their white counterparts to be removed from their homes in the child protection system, and also more likely to be placed with strangers instead of other relatives.
“I really don’t know why it didn’t pass,” said Kelis Houston, who founded the nonprofit Village Arms to work with black families involved in child protection cases. “I don’t understand why we’re basically walking away with nothing this session.”
Houston and other supporters say they have zero tolerance for keeping kids in abusive households. Rather, they want to take a closer look at a broader category of cases alleging neglect where county officials have more discretion to determine that a child should be removed.
Sen. Jeff Hayden, a sponsor of the bill in the Senate, emphasized that these are not cases involving egregious harm. They are “things that we often attribute to poverty, like food insecurity, truancy for school or children being left at home unsupervised. … I’m not suggesting that these aren’t important matters, but they’re not the cases like sexual abuse or physical abuse,” said Hayden, DFL-Minneapolis.
He is planning a town hall on the issue in July.
Minnesota Department of Human Services (DHS) Deputy Commissioner Claire Wilson said in a statement that the disparities in Minnesota’s child protection system are alarming, and the agency looks forward to continuing to work with legislators and other partners to address them.
The legislation was approved by the House Health and Human Services Policy Committee but was not included in the related omnibus bill. The measure would mandate that social workers make greater efforts to prevent removal of children from their homes and offer more support to affected families, along with working to bring families back together. Adults could appeal the termination of their parental rights more quickly, child protection workers would receive cultural competency training and six new specialists would help counties eliminate racial disparities.
Joanna Woolman voiced support for the concept behind the legislation. She’d like constituents and legal scholars to sit down in the next few months to work on language that won’t create constitutional issues.
“I’m a huge proponent of trying to get the bill right,” said Woolman, who is director of the Institute for Children, Families and Communities at Mitchell Hamline School of Law.
Julie Ring, executive director of the Association of Minnesota Counties, said the association had been committed to reducing disproportionate out-of-home placement among black families and wanted to support advocates. She noted they were looking at ways to lower costs for the additional staff time that the law would require.
Hayden said the counties did everything they could not to move the bill forward.
But Jennifer DeCubellis, deputy county administrator for Hennepin County, said that’s an unfair characterization. She said it’s critical to make the bill actionable at the local level, and they ran out of time this legislative session. Putting requirements on the system — and reducing social workers’ caseloads — also costs money, DeCubellis added.
“If we’re not super careful with the language [of the bill], it can … actually do harm to people,” she said.