Twenty years ago, Minnesota began a dramatic overhaul of its child protective system. For too long, said visionary and former Chief Justice Kathleen Blatz, child protection had become "a feeder system to our prisons," with vulnerable children moving through a revolving door first as juvenile offenders and, later, as adult criminals. Today, the Children's Justice Initiative (CJI), a collaboration between the Minnesota judicial branch and Minnesota Department of Human Services, is a national model for how to find safe, stable and permanent homes for abused and neglected children. Current Chief Justice Lorie S. Gildea, who now oversees CJI, shares her pride in this milestone and the work still to be done.
Q: Congrats on 20 years. So, former Chief Justice Blatz and others working with vulnerable families could see the system was broken?
A: Yes. Her experiences led her to state that "we simply must do a better job with children when we first have the chance."
Q: What are common challenges parents and others face that compromise the health and well-being of their children?
A: Parents and children typically come to the attention of county child protection agencies, and eventually courts, because of parental substance abuse. Parental substance abuse continues to be the most common primary reason for new out-of-home care episodes, accounting in 2019 for 1,902 new episodes or 29.9% of all new cases, continuing a trend that started in 2016. In many instances, child protection cases are even more challenging because of the co-occurrence of parental substance abuse and parental mental health issues. The parent's substance abuse and/or mental health issues typically result in the parent's inability to care for the child or the parent jeopardizing the child's safety.
Q: That's on top of many other challenges. Might you speak to those?
A: Many families are at or below the national poverty level. These families may have food insecurity, be unemployed or underemployed, lack safe housing and/or the ability to pay a mortgage or rent, and do not own vehicles. The lack of transportation makes it difficult for parents to attend court hearings or meetings with child protection workers or service providers, or visit their children who may be in foster care. In each of these situations, as well as other challenging situations, county child protection agencies are required to make "reasonable efforts," or "active efforts" in the case of an [American] Indian child, to assist the family to obtain transportation (such as gas cards or bus passes), and provide funding for housing, food, medicine, and other basic needs. Some counties also have parent mentors, often parents who have successfully navigated the child protection system, to support parents through the court process.
Q: How has the COVID pandemic impacted your important outreach?
A: When public access to courthouses has been limited, courts hold hearings remotely. For parents who don't have access to technology or internet services, Minnesota courts and child protection agencies are making special efforts to include parents in remote hearings through "Zoom Rooms" located at courthouses and community agencies and, in some instances, purchasing equipment for parents.
Q: Tell us about your "one judge, one family" objective.
A: Whenever possible, one judge presides over all proceedings involving the family members. This concept allows the court to have a full understanding of the family situation and provide direction in orders that address all of the situations, sometimes simultaneously. Child protection systems attempt to break the cycle of abuse through treatment programs and services that help to deal with underlying causes of abuse and neglect. The early appointment of high quality legal representation as support for parents can lead to positive outcomes for children in child protection matters.
Q: How often are children reunited with their parents? And is this usually the goal?
A: Minnesota's statutes establish that one of the primary purposes of a juvenile protection proceeding is to "preserve and strengthen the child's family ties whenever possible and in the child's best interests, removing the child from the custody of parents only when the child's welfare or safety cannot be adequately safeguarded without removal." Of course, there is always a tension between our goal of finding a safe, stable home for the child as quickly as possible, and the often lengthy recovery time for a parent facing addiction or mental health disease. When it's not possible to safely return a child to the care of their parents in a timely fashion, agencies and courts will look for alternative permanency options for the child, preferably with the child's relatives.
Q: How do judges not get emotionally involved in these cases?
A: For many judges and child protective system professionals, these are the most complex and emotionally challenging of any case type over which judges preside. It is important for them to be aware of their own needs and practice good self-care so that they can continue to serve children and families. On the other hand, judges also state that cases where parents are able to permanently overcome their addictions or other challenges so that their children may be permanently reunited with them are some of the happiest and most memorable cases they have as judges.