A federal law insists on greater protections for Native American families that come into contact with the child welfare system.
In Minnesota, a group of legislators want to apply that same level of protection to African American families, and have introduced a new bill that aims to rid the state’s foster care system of racial disparity.
The Minnesota African American Family Preservation Act aims to “promote the stability and security of African American families by establishing minimum standards to prevent arbitrary and unnecessary removal of African American children from their families.”
“For years, black families in Minnesota have expressed frustration that county staff were not treating them equally. Since at least 2013, we’ve had clear evidence that it is mathematically the case,” said state Rep. Rena Moran, a member of the Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party (DFL), who co-authored the bill.
Minnesota ranks fourth in the country in child well-being, according to the annual Kids Count report put out by the Annie E. Casey Foundation. But in the realm of child welfare, that broader success belies an insidious problem with disparity: Black children in Minnesota are three times more likely to be removed from their homes than white kids.
This bill would minimize circumstances under which African American children can be placed into foster care and prevent child welfare agencies from placing African American children in foster homes with strangers unless they can prove there are no extended family members who could care for the child.
It would also strictly limit the circumstances under which the parents of an African American child could have their parental rights terminated, and would allow for parents who do have their rights terminated to appeal that decision.
Bill co-author State Sen. Jeff Hayden (DFL) likened the disparity among black kids in the system to that of Native American youth — who, in Minnesota, are even more overrepresented than African American children. He wants his bill to function similarly to the Indian Child Welfare Act (ICWA), a federal law enacted to prevent Native children being taken from their homes by the government and placed with white or non-Native families.
“This bill really seeks to give that same level of depth in protection for African American children,” Hayden said at an April press conference about the proposed legislation.
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ICWA’s future has been jeopardized by an October federal court ruling that the law is unconstitutional, based in part on the opinion of the judge that it is a race-based law. That decision has been challenged in the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals.
Tribes defending ICWA maintain that the law has always been rooted in sovereignty, not race. Moran and Hayden’s bill would decidedly be a race-based law, creating a separate layer of protocol for one demographic within the universe of children in contact with child protective services.
The bill would also establish an African American Child Well-Being Department, as well as an African American Child Welfare Oversight Council, which would together be tasked with monitoring the number of African American children in out-of-home foster care and reviewing case plans to ensure cultural needs are being met.
“Beyond the disparity issues that we continue to talk about, it is clear that even when African American children enter the system, their treatment inside the system is different,” Hayden said at the April press conference.
Council members would have access to all records around each case, as well “personnel data related to an employee’s performance in discharging child protection responsibilities” for the workers on each case.
The African American Child Well-Being Department would also have the power to intervene in involuntary or pre-adoptive placement proceedings involving African American children, as well as coordinating housing, employment and education supports for African American families.
Though the bill was introduced in March, it is still awaiting committee hearings before going to the floor for a vote. Bill authors acknowledge that drumming up bipartisan support to pass this bill in the Republican-controlled state Congress could prove challenging.
“My friends in the GOP have not gravitated to this issue,” Hayden said.