Rep. Neva Walker, DFL-Minneapolis, asked several speakers to testify for an informational hearing before the House Health and Human Services Committee. Walker said she wanted an update on whether disparity rates had changed for African-Americans in the state's child protection system since 2000.
"There was a lot of rhetoric at the time that in general African-American parents were bad parents in comparison to our counterparts, which I believe is not true," she said, "also, wanting to know if there was a part of the system that was truly broken and could be fixed."
The head of the state's Child Safety and Permanency prorgam, Erin Sullivan Sutton, told the committee that African-American children are over six times more likely to enter the child welfare system than white children living in Minnesota.
"What this really tells us is that the disproportionality of African-American children being reported to the child protection system and accepted for assessment," she said. "That has not changed."
The question is why? The speakers testified that there is no one simple answer but a complex web of small disparties that add up over time.
Marquita Stephens of the African-American Adoption Agency called the data unacceptable and said the disparity starts at the moment of deciding whether child protection even needs to be called.
"If I'm in a school and a certain kid comes to school all the time improperly dressed in the winter, in a certain environment I will call child protection because this child is coming to school improperly dressed because I think there's an issue there and it has to be investigated," she said. "In another school, they will reach into the lost and found box and give them a coat, hat, gloves whatever they're missing, send them home with a note saying,'If you need it, keep it. If you don't, wash it and bring it back.'"
The latest state figures are from 2006. The report also found that once in the system, African-American children are six times more likely to spend time in foster care than white children. That also hasn't changed since 2000.
Irene Opsahl of the Legal Aid Society told the committee that poverty and the lack of affordable child care are major factors in the recial disparity. She told the committee she represents a young person who's living in foster care because the only relatives willing to take the child permanently work and can't afford to pay child care.
"So that child is with strangers when the child could be with a family if we took the step of really providing what that family needed to bring that child home and keep that safe at home," she said.
As part of a federal review, Erin Sullivan Sutton said the state is looking at how to improve its child protection system. While she said racial disparities are not part of that review, she said the state is seeking outside help from the Casey Family Foundation.
"Bring in individuals from other states that have had some success in working on disparities and we hope to have that event some time during the summer," she said.
The testimony was part of an information only hearing. The head of Child, Safety and Permanency, Erin Sullivan Sutton, said she expected 2007 data on racial disparities to be compiled soon.