On Dec. 3, a 28-year-old black mother lost her parental rights to her four children – ages 1 to 9 – in a Minnesota courtroom, just outside the Twin Cities. Instead of opening presents with their mother, the children spent Christmas with a white family two hours away.
Across the country, black parents – like this mother, whom we will call Jane R. to protect her privacy – are more likely to lose custody of their children than their white, Asian and Latino peers. While African Americans account for 13 percent of the U.S. population, their sons and daughters make up 23 percent of the 442,995 children in foster care.
According to an important 2017 study, 53 percent of all black children will be investigated as potential victims of child abuse by age 18, 16 percentage points higher than the rate for all children combined.
In Minnesota, this bears out. Black children are three times more likely to be investigated or assessed as potential victims of child maltreatment than their white peers, according to the state’s Department of Human Services.
For decades now, this symptom of our nation’s disturbingly unequal treatment of black Americans has been widely known and poorly combatted. As one child welfare expert recently told me, stemming the swollen ranks of black children requires constraining a system that “sanctions” racial bias.
Foster care numbers in Minnesota have nearly doubled to just shy of 10,000 children during the past decade, with removals accelerating since the high profile 2014 death of 4-year-old Eric Dean. As the foster care population has ballooned, black families and their supporters have grown increasingly concerned about how this trend is affecting the African American community.
Winning a wide spectrum of allies among child welfare advocates and a clutch of Democratic-leaning legislators, Minnesota is now engaged in multi-pronged effort to understand and ultimately root out the drivers of racial disproportionality in its foster care system.
On Thursday, State Sen. Jeff Hayden and three of his Democratic colleagues re-introduced the Minnesota African American Family Preservation Act, which never made it to the floor for a vote during last year’s legislative session.
The bill would compel child welfare agencies throughout the state to engage in so-called “active efforts” to keep black families together and, when children are removed, leave no stone unturned to seek out black relatives – not strangers – to take care of them.
The bill’s language mirrors the 40-year-old Indian Child Welfare Act, a federal law that sought to curtail the community-destroying practice of removing Native American children only to place them with non-Native families. For all other children, states are only required to engage in “reasonable efforts” to keep families together and with kin – a nonspecific standard that invites differential treatment for children and families.
But the Family Preservation Act is not the only important development on this front. A Christmas Eve state appeals court decision solidified the state’s existing preference for placing foster children with relatives, and imminent legislation would make it easier for black children to be placed with family by reducing barriers that advocates say disproportionately affect the black community.
“There are huge problems around racial disparity and this law and others are trying to remedy some of those systemic barriers that exist,” said Joanna Woolman, an associate professor at Mitchell Hamline School of Law and a leading member of a working group trying to change Minnesota child welfare policy and practice. “This [the Family Preservation Act] is one example of efforts in Minnesota to address in a concrete way systemic racism in Minnesota.”
Stepmom Steps in Too Late
Jane R. wasn’t alone at that December court hearing when she forever lost custody of her four children. Her stepmother, Ronda Al-hakim, who is biracial, was also present and says she told the judge that she would be willing to adopt the four young children.
After the hearing, Al-hakim repeatedly emailed the children’s social worker, Alyssa Raway, who works for the Dakota County Department of Social Services, asking about the steps she would need to take to get custody of her step-grandchildren. Al-hakim says that she is already a licensed relative caregiver to another grandchild, which suggests that child welfare officials have already conducted the necessary background checks and deemed her home safe.
Under existing state law, a family member like Al-hakim should have been one of Dakota County’s first choices for placement of the children.
Instead, Raway pointed out in an email that Al-hakim and Jane R. had been estranged and that she thought it best that the children stay with the foster parents, who are planning to adopt the children.
“As we talked about at court the children have been with this foster family for almost two years. At this time I have no reason to move the children,” Raway wrote.
Further down in the email the social worker wrote: “My hope would be that both you and the adoptive family could be open to having a relationship with each other in order for the children to have some sort of tie back to [Jane R.’s] family and you could help determine when [Jane R.] is in a good place and maybe could have a relationship again with her children. This could be difficult since the kids don’t have much of a pre-existing relationship with you – but I don’t want to rule it out as an option.”
Raway did not return calls or emails for comment. Instead, an official at the Dakota County’s Department of Social Services asked that questions be directed to the district attorney’s office, which in turn declined to comment.
Jane R.’s children have a court-appointed guardian ad litem named Alexandra Noel. While Noel couldn’t immediately be reached, her supervisor at the Guardian Ad Litem program, Judy Peterson, was familiar with the case. Peterson said that despite Raway’s disinclination to place the children with Al-hakim, Noel still thought it was a possibility.
“In her [Noel’s] eyes this is not a done deal,” Peterson said. “We get it that these are black kids living with a white family in out-state Minnesota.”
The case may indeed not be a “done deal,” as Peterson suggested. On Christmas Eve, a Minnesota appeals court issued an important decision regarding a case that is eerily similar to that of Jane R., her four children and Al-hakim.
The ruling found that a lower court had wrongly “excluded” a grandmother for adoption, and did not notify her before her grandchildren were adopted by their foster parents. Instead, Anoka County’s social services agency – as it appears Raway did in Dakota County – made an extra-judicial decision that the grandmother in question was not a suitable adoptive placement.
The 13-page decision, citing the premium put on placing foster children with their relatives in federal and state law, said finalizing an adoption outside the family without conducting a formal proceeding to “exclude” a relative, and not informing relatives of adoption proceedings, violated state law.
Rhia Bornmann Spears is a private family court attorney who deals with many cases like the one in the Christmas Eve ruling and that of Jane R. and Al-Hakim.
“The social workers just run with these cases and do what they want,” Bornmann said. “This case is asking the court not to just trust the social workers.”
After hearing the details of Jane R. and Al-hakim’s case, Bornman added: “She sounds like a grandma who got excluded by a social worker.”
Joanna Woolman and the working group she convened has drafted legislation that will loosen licensing standards for relative caregivers to better align with federal rules.
“It will eliminate statutory criminal barriers in the foster care licensing process in Minnesota, which we know impact communities of color more than others,” Woolman said in an email. “And it will help eliminate system disparities by making it easier for relatives and others to get licensed to provide foster care for their kin.”
Woolman said she hopes the bill is introduced in the coming weeks.
Carol Spigner is a former federal Children’s Bureau commissioner and currently serves as chair of the board to the Center for the Study of Social Policy, a think tank which has focused on disproportionality for decades.
“You have to put in place constraints against the bias and they have to be systemic and organizational,” Spigner said. “Individual workers make decisions, individual workers have implicit bias, but the system itself has biases that are built into the structure.”
While action on the legal, legislative and advocacy front is working to apply “constraints” to the causes of racial disproportionality, time is not on the side of Al-hakim in her hopes of adopting her four step-grandchildren. She says she can’t afford an attorney and that a nonprofit that represents families in dependency court told her they didn’t have time to take up her case.
She says she still wants to take the kids in, so that they could have a relationship with their mother and better know “their family background and where they came from.”
“They should be with their family, period.”