A group of Minnesota parents has asked a federal judge to strike down Minnesota's child protection laws, saying they are overly broad and put children at risk of being removed from safe and loving homes.

In a letter filed in federal court Tuesday, the parents are seeking a court order declaring that certain state laws that govern when and how children can be removed from their homes are unconstitutional and deprive families of due process. The growing parents' association, Stop Child Protection Services From Legally Kidnapping, said it has documented nearly 50 cases in 23 counties across the state in which children were wrongly removed and placed into foster care, based on false or disputed evidence.

"Families are being abused, and in some cases, destroyed, as a result of laws that are inappropriate," said Dwight Mitchell, the lead plaintiff in the case and founder of the parents' group. "This is legal kidnapping."

The legal action marks an escalation by an emerging coalition of black parents, attorneys and civil rights groups seeking to change the state's child protection system. The group has argued that Minnesota's laws wrongly criminalize parents for what they consider to be routine parental discipline and have a disproportionate impact on black families. State data show that black children in Minnesota are slightly more than three times more likely than whites to be reported to child protection and to be removed from their homes.

They are pushing for stronger parental protections, including the right to use corporal punishment to discipline their children.

In a written statement, Human Services Commissioner Emily Piper said the state has pressed forward with a series of changes recommended by Gov. Mark Dayton's 2015 special task force on child protection. The counties and the state are now spending more on child protection and have hired dozens more social workers. The Department of Human Services, which oversees child protection, has also taken steps to reduce long-standing racial disparities, through enhanced training and targeted grants to local social service agencies.

"Every day, trained professionals in counties across Minnesota go to work to protect our children and families," Piper said. "To call their work 'kidnapping' is an affront to the extraordinary service they perform for all of us, particularly the most vulnerable children in our community. Our highest priority is keeping children safe and Minnesota's child protection system is an integral part of that work."

Some child welfare advocates see the brewing resistance to child removals as a predictable reaction to the state's efforts to improve the 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. The number of child abuse and neglect reports "screened in," or accepted for review, by child protection agencies in Minnesota has increased from 20,167 reports in 2014 to 30,936 in 2016, according to a state report.

"There is a lot of concern, particularly in the African-American community, that child protection doesn't understand their culture and is removing children that are doing OK," said Rich Gehrman, executive director of Safe Passage for Children of Minnesota, a watchdog group for child welfare.

Increase in complaints

The number of families coming forward with complaints of overstepping by child protection agencies has swelled since late April, when Mitchell went public with a civil rights lawsuit. Mitchell alleged that Dakota County child protection workers took custody of his three children after a family babysitter reported that his 11-year-old son, Xander, had received a spanking for stealing and disobeying his parents. It took nearly two years for Mitchell to be reunited with his son, during which time he was allowed no contact and was not even told where his child was living, he said. Mitchell said his son has suffered lasting emotional trauma and has become more socially withdrawn since the incident.

"It was hell on earth and disproportionate to the need presented," said Mitchell, 57, a management consultant who was eventually found to be a fit parent and all his children were returned to him.

Mitchell argued in his lawsuit that Minnesota's statutes governing child protection are "unconstitutionally vague" by not requiring the government to demonstrate a clear threshold of harm before terminating a parent's rights. The laws are also ambiguous about what constitutes excessive parental force. Under state law, parents and legal guardians are permitted to engage in "reasonable and moderate physical discipline" of children, so long as the discipline does not result in an injury. Based on this definition, a parent who inflicts even moderate punishment — such as spanking — could have their children removed if the child is injured, attorneys for Mitchell said.

Mitchell's newly formed organization, Stop Child Protection Services From Legally Kidnapping, has swelled to more than 1,200 members statewide since the lawsuit was filed six weeks ago. About a dozen of these parents were present Tuesday at a news conference at the State Capitol, as Mitchell announced his latest legal action.

Among those present was Amanda Weber, who said her 10-month-old infant, Zayvion, was removed from her custody in Little Falls, Minn., based on false allegations of medical neglect after her son became sick. "That day, I felt like my whole world had fallen apart," said Weber, who cried as she recounted her story. "My top priority is to get my son back, and I will stop at nothing to make that happen."