The stakes couldn’t have been higher when a piece of mail arrived at Krystal Harris’ St. Cloud home last year.
Addressed to her was an envelope from the district court. Its pages held the court’s order — a decision that would determine the legal relationship Harris could have with her son.
Inside, big, bolded letters spelled out “DENIED.”
When Harris saw them, she broke down. Her last attempt to reunite with her son had failed.
The Sherburne County District Court had rejected her petition to reinstate her parental rights to her eldest son. The same court terminated them seven years prior, leaving her without the right to see or even speak to her child, who was 8 at the time.
Harris became entangled with child protective services after her son had problems at school as he grappled with multiple mental health issues, including reactive attachment disorder and post-traumatic stress disorder. There were no findings of maltreatment, but Sherburne County Health and Human Services separated mother and son when he was 6 years old.
Since then, she’d raised two more children with their own medical and mental health needs, and she and her attorneys believed her petition to reunite with her son was sure to succeed.
“It hurt,” she said. “I cried. I bawled because I didn’t know what to say.”
In Minnesota, parents like Harris who have had their parental rights terminated can petition the courts to restore them. But, like Harris’ petition, most of them are denied, data from the Minnesota Judicial Branch shows.
After a law passed in 2019, Minnesota parents who were previously deemed unfit gained the chance to convince a judge that they’ve taken steps to correct the conditions which led to the termination of their parental rights.
But since the year the law passed, just two out of 17 petitions filed by parents were granted by the courts, data shows. Last year alone, all four applicable petitions filed by parents were denied.
Ramsey County Commissioner Rena Moran, who authored the House version of the bill when she was a member of the state Legislature, said she wasn’t surprised by the numbers in a system that has a “long history of demonizing parents.”
“If they are denied, then what progress are we making to even change the culture of how we know that family’s important?” she said.
‘This is about fairness, about redemption’
Minnesota is one of a growing number of states enacting legislation to restore parental rights after a court terminates them. Roughly 22 states have such laws, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.
Historically, a termination of parental rights, also known as the “civil death penalty,” has been permanent. Parents lose their legal right to communicate with their children until they turn 18 or unless adoptive parents facilitate a reunion.
When children are separated from their parents due to allegations of abuse or neglect, parents must comply with a federal timeline to reunite with their family. By law, child welfare agencies must request the termination of parental rights whenever an older child has lived in foster care for 15 of the most recent 22 months.
In Minnesota, that process can move even faster if parents have not complied with a court-ordered case plan designed to mitigate the conditions that brought the child into foster care. The plans typically include services such as drug treatment, domestic violence prevention courses, counseling and regular supervised visits with children. If Minnesota parents are found out of compliance, child welfare agencies can request termination of their custody rights in 12 months, and in just six months for children 7 and younger.
In 2021, the parents of 960 children in Minnesota had their rights terminated, according to state data — civil court rulings that disproportionately impact families of color, particularly Indigenous and Black families.
“There is a process now that allows you to reach back and go get your babies out of that system because the state should never be in the business of raising kids,” Moran said.
In Minnesota, Indigenous children are 16 times more likely than white children to be separated from their families, state data shows. Black children and Hispanic children, of any race, are twice as likely to be removed from their homes than white children, and multiracial kids are almost seven times more likely to be removed. Those children are also less likely than their white peers to be adopted.
“This is about fairness, about redemption and about giving children a bright future outside the child protection system, which we know too often leads to the criminal justice system,” Moran told legislators in 2019. “At the center of this, we’re focused on what’s in the best interest of a child, and whenever possible and practical, to keep families together.”
A limited remedy
Minnesota parents have to wait four years after their rights have been terminated before petitioning the courts. And they cannot make a request if their child has already been adopted or is living with a foster family that is planning to adopt them.
“It’s a pretty incomplete remedy all things considered because the amount of time a child has to be a ward of the state is four years,” said Joanna Woolman, the executive director of the Institute to Transform Child Protection at the Mitchell Hamline School of Law. “It’s almost like a non-remedy.”
The four-year timeline was a compromise to get the bill passed, Moran said.
“It’s still bothering me to today,” she said, adding that she plans to advocate for the timeline to be shortened.
Harris, whose parental rights were terminated in 2015, met the four-year requirement.
Woolman, whose team represented Harris, was certain that the Sherburne County District Court would grant the petition. She didn’t expect to wind up in a five-day litigated trial.
“My expectations were like, ‘everyone’s going to agree. This is why the statute was written. This is a no-brainer.’ And then it went in a really different direction,” she said.
Harris was already parenting her two other children, who both have “significant medical and mental health needs,” according to court documents. She takes them to multiple appointments a week to visit with doctors and therapists.
Her lawyers argued that it was a testament to her ability to adequately care for and raise her children.
“She’s really able to manage that because she’s the one who takes them to their appointments. She’s the one who calls their providers. She’s the one who facilitates everything,” said Hannah Burton, a research assistant at the Institute to Transform Child Protection who also represented Harris. “We saw all of these as important strengths.”
Harris’ petition was one of four applicable petitions filed by parents that year — all of which were denied.
This mechanism in the law is “so underutilized,” Burton said, adding that there is no systematic way to notify parents of their right to petition.
“There are way more kids whose parents could probably bring these petitions than there are petitions being brought,” she said.
“There is a process now that allows you to reach back and go get your babies out of that system, because the state should never be in the business of raising kids."— Bill Author Rena Moran
Before Moran’s bill became law, only county attorneys could file such petitions. But according to data from the Minnesota Judicial Branch, few do.
Since 2014, county attorneys have filed four petitions to restore parental rights. But unlike petitions brought forward by parents, each petition filed by a county attorney was granted.
“My gut is that it reflects more of what is wrong with child welfare,” Vivek Sankaran, director of the Child Advocacy Law Clinic at the University of Michigan Law School, said in an email to The Imprint. “That courts don’t believe facts when parents are the ones relaying them. But when agencies do, they are quick to grant relief.”
‘No stable life’
By Harris’ count, her son has been in 38 different homes, from Minnesota to Wisconsin to Illinois. He’s been in foster homes, group homes, residential treatment settings and juvenile correctional facilities.
“That is no stable life for a child to be honest with you,” she said.
While institutionalized, Harris said her son’s mental health severely worsened.
The petition was an opportunity for the county to reconnect him to his community, Burton said.
“It was devastating to see Krystal’s petition denied because it meant her son would continue to be institutionalized, where he lacked opportunities to build relationships of any depth, experienced rotating caregivers that would come and go, and had limited access to his community,” Burton said.
When Harris’ son turns 18 in September, he will leave the system. While she’s relieved, Harris is still worried about the lasting impact, including the criminal record he racked up while in the child welfare system.
“They set him up for failure,” she said. “Huge failure. He wasn’t able to get a stable job because of how many placements he’s had. He never had a stable education. And all his charges and stuff. What kind of job does he even have to look for?”