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Family Reunification Act could restore parental rights in some lost custody cases

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Ramsey County Attorney John Choi
Ramsey County Attorney John Choi says county attorneys formerly opposed efforts to reunify families after parental rights have been terminated because they wanted to avoid creating false hopes and for children to move on to permanent homes. But older teens face long odds for adoption and Choi said reunification with birth parents who have overcome their problems may be the best outcome for some of them.
MPR photo/Sasha Aslanian

Lawmakers are considering a bill that would give some parents who lost custody of their children years ago a chance to reunify with them.

Advocates say only a small number of teens living in foster care could be affected by the Family Reunification Act, but that it could make a great difference for those motivated parents who have dealt with their problems and whose children want to go home again.

Eleven states currently have a process for parents to regain their parental rights if they meet certain criteria, said Ramsey County Attorney John Choi. In Minnesota, it is impossible. 

Every year in Minnesota, approximately 400 abused or neglected children wind up in foster care after their parents lose the right to care for them. The state tries to find adoptive families for the displaced children but sometimes fails to place them, Choi said. The best choice for some of these teenagers might be to reunify with a birth parent.

"I'm supporting this bill on behalf of those children who we have not taken care of, who we have not found homes for."

"For those kids who are 15 years or older, who have never been adopted, and who have at least spent 36 months since the time the parental rights were terminated, that if the parent is able to take care of their child and has  the financial wherewithal, government shouldn't stand in that way."

Choi and other supporters of the Family Reunification Act held a news conference at the Minnesota Adult and Teen Challenge, an addiction recovery center in south Minneapolis.

Retired Minnesota Supreme Court Justice Helen Meyer, who helped establish the Child Protection Clinic at William Mitchell College of Law, said her background as a social worker taught her how much children -- even those who have been through terrible things -- want to return home.

"There are some children who are never adopted, and there are some children whose parents come forward years later... with some ability to parent and some ability to provide a safe, permanent home for their children," Meyer said. "I'm supporting this bill on behalf of those children who we have not taken care of, who we have not found homes for."

The speakers pointed to the extremely low rates of adoption for older African American and American Indian children. Children who "age out" of foster care without permanent families to fall back on are at greater risk of homelessness, addiction and other problems in adulthood.

Gina Evans of Forest Lake is one mother who for six years has pushed for a chance at redemption. Evans, now 39, lost custody of her son and daughter in 2001 due to neglect. She left her children in the care of her parents, sometimes for long periods of time, when she was using drugs. Evans said the state had every right to terminate her parental rights. She went through treatment and has been clean for nine years. She was able to overcome her felonies to find work again, but when she talked to child protection workers, her county attorney and state lawmakers, she learned there was no second chance at parenthood.

Gina Evans
Gina Evans, 39, of Forest Lake spoke in support of the Family Reunification Act. Evans' son Chris, 12, and daughter, Danielle Conley, 19, were raised by their maternal grandparents. Evans lost custody due to her drug addiction. She has been drug-free for nine years. Minnesota has no remedy for parents to regain parental rights once they have been terminated.
MPR photo/Sasha Aslanian

"They weren't opposed to me getting my parental rights back. They just had never heard of it before," Evans said. "It's unchartered territory."

The bill Evans is advocating would not help her family. Her son, Chris, 12, is too young, and lives with Evans' parents, not in foster care. Her daughter, Danielle Conley, is already an adult. But Conley said she wishes that when she was an 11-year-old girl and her mother stopped doing drugs, there could have been a way for them to be a family again.

"Everybody deserves a second chance," Conley said. "As a child of somebody who is a felon and did get their parental rights terminated: when I found out she was getting help; when I found out she was going to Teen Challenge to turn her life around, I was so excited that she could change and it didn't matter what had happened or that she had been gone. I was just so excited to have my mom back."

The Family Reunification Act has bipartisan support at the Capitol. Choi said only about 35 children in Minnesota's child protection system would fit the criteria to rejoin their parents, but for those families, a second chance should be possible.