DeClara Tripp opened a dresser drawer in the room where her infant son used to sleep. Inside was a striped blue jumper, the one that little Zhakari wore the day before he was rushed by ambulance to Children’s Minnesota Hospital in St. Paul.
When Tripp saw the tiny jumper, she held it to her face and began to cry. “I can still smell him in these clothes,” she said. “Zhakari’s my baby and I want him back.”
On a crisp fall day in 2015, Tripp discovered her 8-month-old infant was limp and barely breathing as she lifted him from his nursing pillow. After doctors found bleeding in the baby’s brain, it became a police matter. County child protection workers, flanked by police, removed Zhakari from the hospital and placed him in foster care — without ever charging Tripp with a crime.
Tripp insists she has medical records showing Zhakari suffered from a condition at birth that explains the dangerous swelling in his brain. Yet the records she says she showed the county were not enough to overcome assertions by investigators that Tripp left her son unsupervised for several hours.
The Tripp family was caught in what some child welfare advocates say is a disturbing trend: black children being taken away from their parents to protect their safety, often based on scant or disputed evidence.
The issue has come to a boil in recent weeks, as an emerging coalition of black parents, civil rights activists and state legislators push for stronger parental rights and greater oversight of social service agencies. They are backing legislation — its sponsors have dubbed it the Minnesota African American Family Preservation Act — that would require county social service agencies to make active efforts to provide services to black families before removing their children.
Racial disparities have long persisted in Minnesota’s child welfare system. But civil rights groups like the NAACP say the inequities have deepened since state and county agencies stepped up enforcement of child maltreatment allegations following the highly publicized 2014 death of 4-year-old Eric Dean, who was killed by his stepmother after numerous reports of his abuse went uninvestigated. The reforms led to a dramatic surge in child maltreatment investigations and removals across the state.
Black children in Minnesota are now slightly more than three times more likely than whites to be reported to child protection and to be removed from their homes, according to recent state data. Once removed, they are also more likely than whites to remain in foster care until they become adults, permanently breaking up families and causing lasting trauma.
“The pendulum has swung much too far,” said Kelis Houston, chairwoman of the Minneapolis NAACP’s child protection committee. “Across this state, African-American children are being swept up and placed in foster care without any consideration of the impact it’s having on marginalized families and their communities.”
Acting Human Services Commissioner Chuck Johnson said disparities for black and American Indian children “must be addressed to ensure the system works for everyone.”
To that end, the Department of Human Services, which oversees the child protection system, has been providing grants to local social service agencies throughout the state, to support families by diverting them from the child welfare system when possible. In 2016, DHS awarded $1.5 million to tribal, county and community agencies to reduce disparities.
In addition, the training curriculum for all new child welfare workers has been updated recently to “provide a deeper focus on cultural humility and culturally responsive practices,” DHS said. The updated training requires that child protection workers analyze “the role of bias and privilege in their decisionmaking” and identify strategies to address disparities, the agency said.
Still, in interviews, black parents across the state say the removals unfairly target people with few resources and frequently result in black children being placed with white foster parents, cutting them off from their cultural heritage and community. These parents are now turning to the federal courts for relief: In a civil rights action filed last week, they allege that county agencies are unconstitutionally removing children for spanking and other forms of corporal punishment that are more common among black families.
Latonya Perry thought she was doing a good job providing a nurturing home for her three grandchildren, whom she began to raise after her daughter lost custody. She splurged on new bicycles and coats for them at Christmas, and took them almost daily to the nearby park or YMCA to play. At dinner, the family would go around the table and say their prayers aloud.
“We were always a really loving, close-knit family,” Perry said.
This domestic calm was shattered early on a frigid December morning two years ago, as Perry was preparing her grandkids for school. She heard a pounding on the door, and opened it to find Hennepin County social workers. The pair calmly informed Perry they had “some disturbing news”: Because her daughter made contact with the children, violating a court order, they would have to remove all three children.
Panic ensued, according to Perry. When the social workers attempted to grab the children, two ran upstairs and hid under their beds, crying. Another child screamed and kicked as the social workers struggled to strap him into his car seat. “These kids had no idea who these strangers were and what was going on,” Perry said. “We just assumed this was all temporary and they would be coming back home.”
They never did. All three children remain in foster care with a white family in northern Minnesota, after a court determined they were in danger of coming into contact with their birth mother. Perry has not seen or spoken to the children since the morning they were removed. The Christmas gifts she bought them, including a plush baby doll and new basketball, remain unopened for the day they return.
“I’m losing weight and my hair is falling out, because I miss them so much,” said Perry, who lives in Coon Rapids. “The worst part is they probably think that I abandoned them, which is traumatic for a child.”
Some child welfare advocates say the frustrations of minority parents are a predictable outgrowth of the state’s reforms of the child protection system. In 2014, in the wake of Eric Dean’s death and several other high-profile failures of the system, child protection agencies across the state revamped their practices for “screening in” maltreatment cases for review, which led to a dramatic surge in caseloads. Among blacks, the number of child abuse and neglect reports accepted for review has increased 60 percent to 7,773 cases statewide since 2015, according to state data.
In 2016, blacks accounted for 20 percent of child maltreatment cases in Minnesota, but only about 6 percent of the overall population, state data show.
“Kids are being put in child protection for cultural reasons,” said Sen. Jeff Hayden, DFL-Minneapolis, who authored the Senate bill on child protection. “A child is spanked and that’s someone’s culture. And then the parents are stuck in a legal quagmire for years.”
DeClara Tripp continues to fight a sustained legal battle to get her son back. With the help of faculty at Mitchell Hamline School of Law, she submitted a 57-page legal motion pleading her case, as well as hundreds of pages of medical records showing her son suffered from hydrocephalus, which involves a dangerous buildup of spinal fluid in the brain. She’s also reached out to Dayton and several state lawmakers.
“I feel like I’m being dragged by a moving train, by a process that is out of my control,” she said.
Even now, more than two years after her son’s trip to the hospital, Tripp is permitted only one two-hour visit with Zhakari, now 3 years old, each week. She tries to make the most of the limited time, often cooking Zhakari his favorite meal (macaroni and cheese with salad) and helping him to read and write. On a recent visit, Zhakari put raspberries on all his fingers while the two sang his favorite nursery rhyme, “Where is thumbkin, where is thumbkin?”
“Sometimes we just cuddle on the couch,” Tripp said, “and I tell him how much I love him and how much I wish I had him back home.”