Two cases of horrific child abuse have grabbed headlines across Minnesota this year and put a spotlight back on systems meant to protect kids.
But statewide data show that child maltreatment cases have been increasing in recent years.
And some say that children of color are over-represented in the child protection system and their families are treated unfairly by child protection workers and the courts.
"Every single day we hear cases of this stuff happening inside the system — that it is essentially a factory," said Sen. Jeff Hayden, DFL-Minneapolis. "We have to kind of get that to stop."
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Earlier this week, Hayden and Rep. Rena Moran, DFL-St. Paul, stood with child protection advocates and several black parents at the Capitol to announce legislation they believe is part of the solution. The House and Senate bills seek to prevent "the arbitrary and unnecessary removal of African-American children from their families."
The bill would require social services agencies to make "active efforts" to avoid out of home placement of black children. In the case of temporary placement, the bill requires agencies to make stronger efforts to find relatives for the child to stay with.
"We've noticed a disturbing trend within child protection where African-American children are now illegally removed from their homes," said Kelis Houston, the chair of the Minneapolis NAACP's child protection committee and a guardian ad litem — a court-appointed advocate to represent the best interests of a child in child abuse and neglect cases.
She added that in some cases the children are taken from fit parents and placed with nonrelatives.
• In Hennepin County alone, the number of reports has increased by 85 percent between 2009 and 2017.
• Across the state, Native American children were five times more likely to be screened in the system on reports of maltreatment reports than white children, according to the most recent data from the state's Department of Human Services (DHS).
• Children who identify with two or more races, as well as African-American children, were both about three times more likely than whites to be screened into the system, the state data show.
Stuck in the system
Child protection professionals and advocates say the upward trend is driven by several different factors including increased awareness of child abuse, changes to child protection laws and opioid addiction that has rendered scores of Minnesota parents incapable of caring for their children.
Counties get far more reports of suspected abuse and neglect than ever end up the court system, which is the beginning of the process to remove children from their parents or legal guardians temporarily or permanently.
For example, last year in Hennepin County officials took 20,385 reports of child maltreatment. And just a fraction of those, 1,562 cases, ended up in juvenile court in the form of Children in Need of Protection and Services (CHIPS) petitions.
But in the past five years, the number of CHIPS cases involving black children has increased by 53 percent, according to state data.
It can be difficult to find qualified relatives to place children of color, said Hennepin County deputy county administrator for Health and Human Services, Jennifer DeCubellis.
For example, she said, a person with a serious criminal history is not legally able to be a placement option for a child, she said. And that has an impact on communities of color, which DeCubellis said are already over-represented in the criminal justice system.
"So these are the very children who get stuck in the system because there aren't adults who meet the requirement based on statute," she said.
The pace of calls to Hennepin County child protective services has slowed over the last few years. Between 2016 and 2017 the number of maltreatment calls increased by less than one percent. However, DeCubellis said the current caseloads are double the accepted standard.
"That's not unique to Hennepin County," she said. "That's happening across the state. That's happening nationally."
The number of maltreatment calls and screened in cases in Hennepin County appeared to jump sharply between 2015 and 2016. That followed a set of new child protection legislation passed in 2015 on the heels of a report issued by a legislative task force on child protection.
DeCubellis said, among other things, the legislation required "mandatory reporters" to report additional types of cases. The county was required to commit to 24-hours a day, seven days a week child protection staffing.
Bills at Legislature targeted at cases
The Hayden/Moran legislation, called the Minnesota African American Family Preservation Act, is not the only effort this session to reform a section of the child protection system.
A bill introduced in March would include several more recommendations from the task force, including a directive to make it the preferred practice that child protection workers interview children who are subject of a child abuse report to be interviewed without their parent or caregiver present.