The recent and frenzied attention paid to children separated from their parents along the southern U.S. border has brought up some important truths about the trauma children experience when they are separated from their parents. And while the country has been consumed with worry about the approximately 2,300 children separated from their parents along the border, we here in Minnesota separated more than 7,000 children from their parents last year in our child welfare system.
Over the last several years, the number of children removed from their homes into the foster care system in Minnesota has increased exponentially — in some counties more than 100 percent. The number of reports of children being abused or neglected that are recommended for investigation has increased by more than 10,000 since 2014. In 2016, Minnesota had the sixth-highest removal rate in the country. Most children in Minnesota are removed due to neglect — and not serious physical or sexual abuse.
What the issues on our border have highlighted is that children are severely traumatized when they are removed from their parents. Several child psychologists have been quoted in relation to the border family separations as saying that if we listened to what the science tells us, we would never do this. Removal of a child from his or her family is one of the most traumatic events a child can endure. In particular, when a child is removed from a parent and placed into a strange home, the child experiences extreme but ambivalent loss (because their parent is not dead, but just not there), a lack of understanding of their role in a family, and feelings of grief, guilt and shame. Some removals also involve the separation of siblings. These consequences can last a lifetime. The long-term outcomes for children who are removed include increased risk of entry into the criminal-justice system and increased risk of mental-health and chemical-dependency issues such as opioid addiction.
Plus, like the border separations, families of color in Minnesota experience child removal at much higher rates than whites, in particular in the African-American and American Indian communities. The historical resonance of child removal in both of these communities highlights the potential effects of the overuse of separation as a remedy for poverty. In Minnesota, the removal rate for African-American families is more than five times that of whites, while for Indians it is close to 10 times more likely. We must consider these disparity rates because we often remove children from these communities and place them with foster homes that are not similar enough culturally, causing further trauma.
The important decision to remove a child from the home and place him or her into foster care must be made carefully by judges, after consideration of all possible options to allow the child to remain safely in the home. Minnesota law requires that child separation is permissible only when there is evidence that there is an immediate danger to the child. This standard must be strictly enforced.
We know from experience that leaving children in a home where they are in danger sometimes leads to catastrophic consequences. What we don’t also consider as readily is that removing children from their homes will cause certain harm — the trauma of separation. Our system needs to get this decision right, because there is too much at stake when we remove children unnecessarily.
Joanna Woolman is director of the Child Protection Program at Mitchell Hamline School of Law. Jeff Hayden, DFL-Minneapolis, is a member of the Minnesota Senate.