In a victory for relatives of children placed in foster care, a Minnesota appeals court has ruled that child welfare agencies in Minnesota must go through a formal court proceeding before ruling out family members as adoptive parents for neglected children.

A three-judge panel of the Minnesota Court of Appeals decided last month that Anoka County Social Services violated state law when it denied a woman's petition to be the adoptive parent of her three grandchildren without first obtaining a court order expressly excluding her.

The young children, who were removed from their birth parents' custody because of drug abuse, were then placed with nonrelative foster parents, with no notification to the grandmother.

The ruling was cheered by an emerging coalition of black parents, attorneys and civil rights groups, who say that subtle racial biases in Minnesota's child protection system result in excessive and unnecessary placements of minority children with white foster parents.

Some child welfare advocates say the 13-page decision sends a clear signal that social service agencies cannot automatically exclude relatives of abusive or neglectful parents in adoption proceedings, but must comply with Minnesota state law, which gives priority in such cases to family members. By requiring a judicial finding to rule out a relative, the decision also upholds limits on the power of county social workers, who often wield great influence over child placement decisions.

"The court is sending a pretty strong message that the county should not be the ultimate decisionmaker, and that relatives need to be prioritized as a placement option," said Joanna Woolman, a professor and director of the child protection program at the Mitchell Hamline School of Law. "[The decision] reminds agencies and the public that preserving families ... is a critical priority."

The decision comes at a challenging time for the state's child welfare system, which is straining amid new rules and a dramatic surge in child welfare cases stemming from the opioid crisis. Over the past few years, the number of children being removed from their homes has increased by 20 percent, though in some counties the removals have more than doubled. Parental drug abuse is the leading cause, accounting for almost a third of the 7,482 removals in 2017, according to state data.

As the number of removals has climbed, there has been a growing backlash against the county-administered child protection system. Over the past two years, a coalition of advocates has sought changes to state law, arguing that Minnesota's laws give too much power to county social workers and create unnecessary barriers to those seeking to become foster parents for relatives.

The courts, they say, provide a much-needed check on local child welfare agencies and would help to reduce long-standing racial disparities. Children of color have long been overrepresented in Minnesota's child welfare system, and those disparities are growing. In 2017, black children were more than three times more likely than whites to be referred to child protection and removed from their homes, while American Indian children were 18.5 times more likely, state data shows.

Kelis Houston, chairwoman of the Minneapolis NAACP's child protection committee and founder of Village Arms, a nonprofit that helps black families navigate the child-protection system, said the disparities stem in part from a lack of judicial oversight and that county agencies sometimes rule out relatives as foster parents based on subjective criteria.

She and a group of child welfare advocates plan to renew a push for legislation that would require local agencies to make a concerted effort to locate a child's relatives before placing a child into foster care, among other changes. If, after conducting an assessment, a local agency determines that the child cannot be placed with a relative, the agency must provide a written explanation, according to legislation they plan to propose this year.

A separate bill would make it easier for family members to get licensed as foster parents by removing some of the criminal offenses that can disqualify relatives. It would also streamline state practices to provide more uniformity in child-placement decisions.

"We leave far too much discretionary power ... to county child-protection workers, who often have an implicit bias against family members," Houston said. "All too often, if [relatives] don't fit into the white middle-class standard of what a family looks like, then they are automatically deemed as inappropriate placement for the children."

The appeals court ruling affirms existing state law, which requires counties to consider relatives first. Judge Lucinda Jesson wrote that a district court must issue a ruling "expressly excluding a relative" as a placement option before that person can be ruled out for adoption placement.

"When considering placement options for children in the child-protection system, the Legislature directed child-placing agencies ... to consider relatives first," Jesson wrote.

The decision could influence dozens of legal cases across Minnesota where grandmothers, aunts, uncles and others are seeking to care for children who have been removed from their birth parents, said Rhia Bornmann Spears, a Minneapolis attorney who handles family law and child protection cases. "This will protect relatives, by forcing counties to step up their efforts," she said. "They will actually have to provide evidence and obtain a court order ... before they can break up a family and send children into the abyss of the foster care system."

The ruling stems from a 2015 child-protection case involving three young children who were removed from their parents' care and placed into foster care. The case began when two of the children, ages 1 and 2, were found running through a neighborhood naked and unsupervised. When police arrived, they found a third child, an infant, unsupervised in a crib. The father was passed out in the family's home, having recently taken methamphetamine; and the mother had spent the day using illegal narcotics, according to court documents. The court later terminated the mother and father's parental rights, citing their substance-abuse problems and domestic abuse.

The children's' grandmother, however, pursued adoption of the children. Last spring, she completed a home study — a requirement in all adoptive proceedings — and social service workers gave her a positive recommendation. The home-study noted her love for her grandchildren and her strengths, including her "willingness to uproot her own life and seek outside resources" to care for the children. Even so, without a formal court proceeding, Anoka County determined that the grandmother was not a suitable placement option, based in part on concerns about her ability to set boundaries with the children's mother, court records show.

Lucas Dawson, a Minneapolis attorney representing the grandmother, said the county's decision reflected a "real and persistent bias" against relatives of children removed from troubled homes.

"The unfortunate part is that these grandparents are often the ones that have the closest and the most loving relationships with the children," she said. "My biggest hope is that counties and courts across the state get the message, and that more relatives be given a shot in the process."