A mother who kept her 2-year-old son in a drug den will get another chance to get him back, despite state law saying her parental rights could be terminated.

At a court hearing Tuesday, Cynthia Kiewatt, 43, learned that she could be reunited with her son if she follows Hennepin County’s case plan requiring drug treatment, random drug tests, stable housing and other steps. Her son was placed into foster care last week after he was found sleeping in a bed in a Bloomington motel room within feet of a syringe filled with heroin. Kiewatt and four other addicts found in the room were arrested. Kiewatt is in jail facing child endangerment charges.

Due to her long history of drug abuse and prostitution, Kiewatt has twice involuntarily lost the parental rights to her children, which in the eyes of the law make her “palpably unfit” to be a parent to any future children.

In cases such as Kiewatt’s, state law requires the director of a child protection agency to ask their county attorney to file a petition terminating parental rights for any new child. But whether county attorneys take that action is up to them.

It’s a step Hennepin County could have taken with Kiewatt when her son was born addicted to drugs in May 2013 and placed into foster care. Instead, she was reunited with him about four months later.

Several attorneys who practice in child protection told the Star Tribune that counties typically file to terminate parental rights in situations like this one.

Told about the details of the case, Lilia Panteleeva, the director of the St. Paul-based Children’s Law Center, said, “I think there should be a fast track [to terminate parental rights]. She has already been given another chance she would not have gotten in most counties when [her son] was born, and she failed to protect him.”

The county attorney is simultaneously prosecuting Kiewatt for child endangerment and presenting a plan to reunite her with her son.

County Attorney Mike Freeman said he is not seeking to terminate Kiewatt’s parental rights, because those cases can be very difficult “for this office to prevail and must be analyzed with that in mind.”

Freeman also said the county “will follow all legal requirements, but we don’t believe this child should be returned to his mother.”

Nevertheless, in court Tuesday, Assistant County Attorney Erin Goltz presented the plan that would allow mother and child to reunite, and she also recommended that Kiewatt be granted supervised visitation with the child once she starts treatment.

District Judge Luis Bartolomei urged Kiewatt to follow the plan. “You have a long history in child protection,” Bartolomei told Kiewatt. “There’s still time. Engage. Get going with treatment, with whatever services are necessary.”

Mother, child went missing

Kiewatt initially took advantage of her first chance to get her son back. She went through drug treatment after he was placed into foster care as a newborn. After passing several drug tests, she started spending time with her son in September, then gained full custody in February 2014, court records show.

The next month, the county got a report that she left the boy alone in a car but determined that the allegations were unfounded, records show. In December 2014, the county learned that Kiewatt had posted pictures of herself on online prostitution sites posing on a bed in lingerie, saying she was available “24/7.” The county declined to investigate, saying the complaint “does not meet the definition of abuse, sexual abuse or neglect under Minnesota law.”

In February 2015, the county received new complaints that Kiewatt was again abusing drugs. She denied those allegations when she met with a county social worker, but she was told her case would be transferred to another department in child protection. Kiewatt disappeared with the child.

The two were missing until Sept. 16, when a clerk at the Northwood Inn in Bloomington told police that a guest who appeared to be high had a young boy with her. Officers went to the woman’s room and found the boy asleep on a bed, feet away from a syringe full of heroin. A drug addict was lying next to him. Kiewatt and other addicts were also in a room filled with drugs, crack pipes and needles.

The boy again went missing after police handed him over to a family friend. He was found by Bloomington police Thursday after his father led them to him. The boy is now in foster care.

Practice varies

Rex Holzemer, the assistant county administrator for human services, said the county tries to reunify children with their parents so long as they believe the child will be safe.

“We want to give everybody a reasonable effort for reunification,” Holzemer said. “But there will be cases where that isn’t appropriate.”

Whether county attorneys file parental-right terminations in cases like Kiewatt’s varies widely across the state, said Ann Ahlstrom, a former manager of the state Children’s Justice Initiative. Some counties try to terminate rights as soon as the law allows, said Ahlstrom, while others worried that doing so too quickly could harm a child.

Ahlstrom, who is now the director of oversight for Hennepin County child protection, declined to talk about Kiewatt’s case.

Panteleeva, of the Children’s Law Center, said Kiewatt’s case shows a need for “a critical look at best practices across the state and implement a consistent approach.”