When Maya White of Eden Prairie was 12, she had to report being abused by her biological father to complete strangers. But the hardest part was reporting it while he was listening in, the young teen told lawmakers in March.
“I was so nervous and had so many thoughts, feelings and questions, like ‘What will happen to me? Will I have to go home with the person after I just spilled everything? What if nothing gets better?’” Maya said.
In Minnesota, the law governing how children are interviewed by social workers investigating maltreatment states that those conversations “may” take place outside the presence of the alleged perpetrator. The decision is based on the caseworker’s discretion — an element that has been the subject of contention in the state for years.
The legislation has been dubbed “Maya’s Law.” It’s the latest in a series of efforts since at least 2015 to ensure that every child in Minnesota is interviewed privately in order to avoid fear and intimidation.
But, as with previous legislative attempts, the bill that would have mandated separate interviews for all reports of maltreatment, even without permission from a parent or guardian, has not moved forward as envisioned. Although it set out to establish a mandate, amendments chipped away at the original bill language.
A new provision passed by state lawmakers Sunday as part of a package of human services bills emphasizes the need for separate interviews in the most serious cases of maltreatment. But it does not require them in every case, a condition advocates have long pushed for.
Critics of that approach say removing social workers’ discretion over how to talk to children about sensitive topics could cause more harm than good. In some cases, they say, interviews with strangers away from children’s parents could cause lasting harm.
Social workers need the flexibility to determine the best interview strategy for each situation, the Department of Human Services wrote in a statement to The Imprint: “Applying additional practice requirements to the sensitive and fragile framework of child interviews could disregard the best interests of children and quash important clinical considerations in attending to alleged child victims or the nature of the allegation.”
Hotline reports that meet the threshold of child maltreatment vary in gravity from egregious harm, like physical or sexual abuse, to the broader category of neglect — the most common allegation.
Depending on the severity of a report, local child welfare agencies assign cases to either investigations, or assessments. Have social workers been called because a home has had no electricity for an extended period, or are there clear signs of physical abuse? Cases alleging sexual assault or significant danger are assigned to investigations. The rest follow a track where families are offered services that address child safety concerns.
State guidance recommends that children be interviewed separately from their caregivers, particularly in cases where the allegations are more severe. If the allegation warrants it, social workers may ask permission to see a reported bruise or mark. It’s widely agreed that children should be interviewed away from alleged perpetrators accused of severe physical or sexual abuse.
But when there aren’t serious safety concerns, proponents of the state’s discretionary approach say the decision should be left up to a trained social worker.
Others argue that practice fails to guarantee safe spaces for all children to feel comfortable enough to describe their experiences.
That’s the position taken by the nonprofit group Foster Advocates. The organization began to push for this latest bill after hearing from foster youth about the daunting feat of sharing what was happening to them in the presence of someone who had abused them.
Early on, Foster Advocates reached out to the Institute to Transform Child Protection at the Mitchell Hamline School of Law in St. Paul. Joanna Woolman, the executive director, reviewed early, proposed language of the bill and wrote back with feedback. She had concerns.
Among them was the possibility that poorly trained interviewers, with a reported allegation in mind, could conduct leading interviews with children.
“This new process could create more opportunity for the case to be biased against the parent because social workers are coming into that interview with a bias to begin with,” she wrote to Foster Advocates.
In low-risk cases, Woolman advised, separate interviews could create unnecessary friction between families and social workers.
“It automatically puts the agency and parents in an untrusting adversarial relationship from day one,” Woolman said. “Surprises like this, when there aren’t serious safety concerns, have the opposite effect of helping to keep kids safe. Parents are scared the state is going to take their kids and when there’s no trust, it’s very difficult to establish the type of partnership needed to address the family’s needs.”
The interviews in practice
At least one Minnesota county has data revealing how often kids are interviewed alone. In 2021, 76% of children in Hennepin County were interviewed outside the presence of their alleged offender and anyone with a close relationship to the offender, according to data from Hennepin County Health and Human Services.
A 2019 settlement agreement pushed the county to require that interviews be conducted outside the presence of alleged perpetrators and outside the presence of any parent who has a familial or personal relationship with them. If Hennepin County parents decline separate interviews, the social worker must determine whether it is in the child’s best interest to obtain a court order to talk to the child separately.
Hennepin County cases that did not result in a separate interview were mostly due to “child capacity,” a category which includes children who are nonverbal, have developmental delays or other significant needs. In those cases, an interview might depend on observing the child and looking out for nonverbal cues.
While Hennepin County has always placed an emphasis on interviewing children alone, the settlement formalized the practice and initiated relevant data collection, said Kwesi Booker, the county’s children and family services director.
In Maya’s case, the option of a private interview could have empowered her to come forward sooner, she said. She took the brave leap to protect her younger brothers from abuse.
“No child should have to go through the same experience that I did,” Maya said when she testified in support of pending legislation on March 17. “I support this law because I believe kids should not have to be afraid about the consequences of coming forward when they are being abused. Kids have a lot to say and should be granted a safe place to do so.”
Ariana Guerra, policy and advocacy manager at Foster Advocates, testified at the same hearing.
“Just as we would handle a criminal case where an individual is assaulted on the street, we would never force this victim to make their statement in front of their perpetrator and we would certainly never let that person drive the victim home,” Guerra said. “So why is this acceptable for our most vulnerable children?”
Guerra, now 29, said when she was 16, she was pulled out of school for an interview. She said she was terrified, but her social worker assured her that she would be safe after she walked out.
“That empowered me to be like, this is my opportunity to speak up and really say what happened,” Guerra said.
Now, as a guardian ad litem, she works with youth who have been in the same position.
She’s encountered many who have told her that they didn’t speak up sooner because a parent was in the room or that they were too scared to ask to meet the social worker alone.
But for other kids, the interview experience is not always positive. Lilia Panteleeva, the director of the Children’s Law Center of Minnesota, has heard anecdotally about the fear the interviews cause in some children and the burden of responsibility many of them carry after speaking up.
“My biggest concern with this is if the allegation of maltreatment or abuse proves to be false, the traumatizing experience that this interview may do to a child is long lasting,” Panteleeva said.
Tonya Long’s own memory of that interview dates back decades.
In the late 1960s in Sioux City, Iowa, Long, a fifth grader at the time, was called to the principal’s office. Long’s brothers and sisters, a police officer and a social worker were in the room.
Then, the siblings were escorted to the human services building downtown. The police officer left, and two social workers began asking the kids questions about their parents, like whether or not they drink.
“I just remember feeling like, ‘What the hell’s going on?’” Long said. “This woman and the police came, took us from school, you brought us downtown and I don’t see my mom or dad anywhere.”
The children were eventually removed from their family and placed in the foster care system for two years. During that time, Long said, they were separated from members of their Omaha Tribe, and sent to live in white foster family homes, even though their grandfather owned a three-bedroom house and lived alone.
In Minnesota, American Indian children are 16 times more likely than white children to be removed from their homes following social worker investigations, according to 2020 state data. Black children are twice as likely to be removed from their homes than white children, and children of two or more races are almost seven times more likely to enter foster care.
These judgment calls are mostly handled by white social workers in the state. Data cited in a report produced by the state Office of Rural Health and Primary Care two years ago reveals that they make up 90% of Minnesota social workers. Roughly 93% of social workers speak only English, the report said.
These workers are entering the homes and ferreting out delicate family dynamics of those who encounter the child welfare system here, more than half of whom are children of color, according to federal data.
Kelis Houston said those demographics mean families may not be protected from implicit bias.
“Oftentimes African American children are misinterpreted when interviewed or assessed by those outside the community that have no cultural context to refer to,” said Houston, the director of the nonprofit Village Arms, an organization that helps Black families involved in child protection cases.
Because of that, Houston said she has opposed previous legislation in her state that would require children to be interviewed privately in all cases.
“They misunderstand our cultural norms, parenting styles, practices, beliefs, traditions and values. Our homes don’t align with white normative standards,” Houston said. “As a result, parents are deemed wrong, unfit, forced into court and case plans, although no child safety concerns exist in their home.”
Interview practices before the Legislature
Still, Safe Passage for Children of Minnesota, a children’s advocacy group, has pushed for three prior bills that would have mandated separate interviews with children, even without consent from the parent or guardian, including one last year. But each year, as with this most current legislative season, those efforts have failed to gain traction in the statehouse and in a field divided on the issue.
Rich Gehrman, who directs Safe Passage said the issue reflects practices that “are weighted so heavily in favor of parents that we forgot to take care of the kids.”
Though the newly passed legislation includes only minor modification of current interviewing practices, it expands protections for children already in foster care, giving them the opportunity to be interviewed away from their foster parents.
Foster Advocates worked with the Department of Human Services to amend their bill to emphasize the need for separate interviews for those who are not in foster care “when it is possible and the report alleges substantial endangerment or sexual abuse.” Parents will continue to have the ability to decline the interviews.
As it stands, the bill would place an emphasis on the most serious cases of maltreatment.
“For Maya at least, this would have covered her specific scenario,” said Hoang Murphy, founder and executive director of Foster Advocates.