Updated: 5:33 p.m. | Posted: 2:50 p.m.
A lawsuit filed this week in federal court accuses child protection workers of illegally removing African-American children from their parents.
The civil rights lawsuit comes as the number of permanent and temporary out-of-home placement proceedings involving black children is on the rise across the state.
A few weeks before the suit was filed in U.S. District Court in Minneapolis, lead plaintiff Dwight Mitchell appeared at the Capitol when legislation was announced aimed at preventing "unnecessary out-of-home placement" of black children.
Mitchell is suing Dakota County and the state Department of Human Services.
Dakota County did release a statement Thursday commending the employees in child protection within the county and across Minnesota.
"Child protection actions that result in a formal court petition are overseen by judges who listen to the evidence presented by all parties and make final decisions," the statement read.
According to the lawsuit, Mitchell's three children were taken after a babysitter reported that he had spanked one of the kids.
Two of the children were returned after five months. Mitchell said child protection workers denied any contact between himself and his middle child for nearly two years.
"It was 22 months of lost smiles, lost hugs and lost time spent together as a family," said Mitchell.
Suit comes after Capitol appearance
Mitchell didn't use the term "out-of-home placement" in the April 10 appearance to describe what happened to his kids.
"Just as many other African-Americans in Minnesota, I too was a victim of the child protection system when my children were illegally kidnapped from my custody," said Mitchell, who founded an organization called Stop Child Protection Services From Legally Kidnapping.
Two other African-American parents at the press conference described similar scenarios. One woman talked about her ongoing two-year-long battle with Ramsey County to get one of her children back. Ramsey County is not named in the lawsuit.
Mitchell is suing Dakota County and the state Department of Human Services. Representatives from both the county and DHS have not returned calls for comment.
The lawsuit claims that the application of state child protection laws is "unconstitutionally vague, unconstitutionally overbroad, failing strict scrutiny and lacking a rational basis."
Mitchell is seeking damages of at least $100,000 and punitive measures designed to prevent others from experiencing what he said his family has gone through.
Mitchell's suit also alleges racial bias. The suit recounts a 2014 exchange between Mitchell and a white Dakota County social worker who allegedly said: "Why are all black families so quick to spank their children? You are unfit to be parents and don't deserve to have children!"
Number of black children in out-of-home placement increasing
Courts data show the number of black children in Minnesota involved in temporary or permanent out-of-home placement proceedings have increased significantly since 2013.
In that year, 344 African-American children were the subject of removal cases. By 2017, that number increased to 595, an increase of 73 percent.
In Dakota County, there were six black children involved in removal proceedings. In 2017, there were 17. That year, African-American children made up 15 percent of the total number of out of home placement proceedings.
The story is much the same in the state's largest county and the one with the largest number of black residents.
In Hennepin County, the increase is even steeper. Between 2013 and 2017, the number of black children involved in out-of-home placement proceedings jumped by 130 percent from 175 to 402.
African-American children made up 37 percent of all children involved in out-of-home placement cases in 2017.
Mitchell and other advocates for child protection reform say black families in the system face other types of discrimination.
Kelis Houston is the chair of the Minneapolis NAACP's child protection committee and a guardian ad litem. She appeared with Dwight Mitchell at the April 10 press conference.
"We've noticed another trend, where African-American children are being removed from fit, foster parents as well — African-American foster parents and relatives — and placed in non-relative, Caucasian homes," said Houston.