In Minnesota this year, parents and their allies began protesting what they say are routine violations of families’ rights as well as bias that leads to the overrepresentation of black and Native American families in the child welfare system. In Minnesota, a black child is 3 to 5 times more likely to be in foster care than a white child, and a Native American child is 17 times more likely to be in foster care, according to Kelis Houston, chair of the Minneapolis NAACP’s child protection committee, and Dwight Mitchell, a child welfare-affected father and founder of Family Preservation Foundation, Inc., who led a federal civil rights lawsuit against what he says is the unconstitutional seizure of children.
Their efforts brought out hundreds of parents to rallies and led to proposed legislation that has been covered by newspapers and television.
Q: How did you get involved in organizing child welfare-affected parents?
Houston: I worked at the emergency placement unit of Hennepin County’s central intake shelter for five years. It’s the first stop for children just removed. Almost 100% of the children were African American and they remained with us much longer than their Caucasian peers. I spent time getting to know some of the parents and I realized, “These are good parents.”
I also served as guardian-ad-litem for three years and witnessed blatant racial bias. For example, I was assigned to an African-American mother with infant twins. She was locked out of her home on a hot summer day and her babies became overheated. She and a relative brought the babies’ temperatures down with cold compresses but not before CPS was notified. Her children were immediately removed and placed with non-relatives.
In contrast, a Caucasian mother used illegal substances while driving with her child and crashed her vehicle. CPS was notified but the child was not removed until her third or fourth DUI. Her child was placed in relative care and returned much sooner than the African-American babies. I witnessed this trend throughout my entire time as guardian.
Mitchell: I work as an international management consultant. I was in Minnesota working. My middle son, who was 11, was acting up and I punished him, with simple corporal punishment, on the behind. The next day, my son told his babysitter and she called child protective services. They removed all three of my children. They returned two after five months, saying there was no evidence of abuse. But they kept my middle son for 22 months. My kids have never been the same.
Q: Can you describe your organizing efforts?
Houston: Child protective services is able to get away with what they do because parents don’t know that whole communities are facing this. I’ve been joining parents together and bringing them to the legislature to testify. We’ve given countless interviews to reporters. We’ve been really trying to amp up awareness around racial disproportionality here. We had a rally at the capital to say black children matter.
Mitchell: I knew what was done to my family was unconstitutional, so in September 2017, I started an association called Stop Child Protection From Legally Kidnapping Children—over 5,000 parents have joined as members in the last 5-months—and I led a federal civil rights lawsuit on behalf of my association.
Our biggest rally was on October 9 in front of the federal courthouse; 200 families showed up with signs and banners and matching shirts. One of the things I said in my speech is, “You can’t tell me there isn’t something wrong with this system when so many people are saying, ‘Me too, me too, me too.’”
I believe one of the primary reasons I’ve received so much media attention is that I was able to present the media with a lot of evidence. I submitted 85 pages of Dakota county documentation that showed that everything I was saying was true. When I led the lawsuit, 40 parents from our association led affidavits stating that the same unconstitutional practices happened to them.
Q: Dwight, can you tell us about what you hope your lawsuit accomplishes?
Mitchell: If we win, parents would be told their rights at the first encounter with CPS. They’d be told, “If you can’t get a lawyer, we’ll provide you with one for your initial hearing.” Right now, I think every parent was like me. They didn’t have a lawyer at the initial Emergency Protective Custody hearing. They were told, “Come to court tomorrow to talk about your kid.” None of us knew that we could present evidence to the judge to refute the allegations or file a motion to dismiss the case to get our kids back immediately. This first hearing is the most unconstitutional aspect of the entire proceeding. They take your children without giving you an opportunity to present a defense.
The law is also vague and written so broadly that they can remove your child for anything. If the lawsuit is successful, if there’s no physical harm to a child, then the law would say that they cannot remove the child.
Q: Kelis, can you tell us about the African American Family Preservation Act (AAFPA) and why you’ve been working to get it passed?
Houston: First it would make sure social workers made active efforts to keep black children at home, and when out-of-home placement is necessary, immediately place children with kin. Any party to the case could petition the court for reinstatement of parental rights. Right now, the only person who can is the county attorney who asked to terminate those rights in the first place. If this law passes, we believe we’ll have a drastic reduction in disparity, more families kept together and better outcomes for our children.