‘They’re going to take the baby’: Foster care barriers keep families separated

By: - March 15, 2021 6:00 am

Brianna Robinson-Harris, a mental health practitioner from Champlin, is in a months-long legal battle in hopes of adopting her 6-year-old niece, who entered foster care in 2019. (Rilyn Eischens/Minnesota Reformer)

Lakecia and Rhonald Gant lost their 27-year-old daughter when she was murdered in 2019, leaving them to care for their 2-year-old granddaughter. 

Days later, Lakecia Gant found her husband in tears in the living room. “They’re going to take (the) baby,” he told her.

A social worker had just told Rhonald Gant that their granddaughter couldn’t live with them because he had been charged — but never convicted — with misdemeanor domestic assault more than five years earlier. He was prepared to do anything to keep the child with family, so he moved out. He took parenting assessments and chemical dependency classes at the county’s request. 

The following year was overwhelming. Lakecia Gant cared for their granddaughter, testified in the trial of her daughter’s killer and suffered the loss of another child when their son died in a January car accident — all without her husband of 32 years at home.

Then Gant got a heartbreaking call. The county wasn’t going to recommend she receive a foster care license. They didn’t explain why.

Gant said she and her husband are all their granddaughter knows — her “safe haven.” The girl’s father was sentenced to 40 years in prison for her mother’s murder, and the child doesn’t know his family, Gant said.

“This is all wrong,” Gant said in an interview. “We raised five kids together. We’ve never had any issues with child protection. But now because her mom was killed, you want to step in and just take her away from us? We didn’t want this to happen.”

Researchers, advocates and child welfare workers agree that placing children in foster care with relatives like Gant can have lifelong benefits. State law requires that county agencies, which administer the state’s foster care system, seek out and prioritize relatives for temporary or permanent placement. 

But families who could provide safe homes are often barred from becoming caretakers due to bias, lack of support and disqualifications in state law, advocates say. These barriers disproportionately affect families of color and low-income families, exacerbating longstanding disparities in Minnesota’s child protection system.

“I get calls from Duluth, St. Cloud, Ramsey, Hennepin. And relatives are saying the same thing,” said Kelis Houston, director of Village Arms, an organization that helps Black families involved in child protection cases. “When you have African-American foster parents and relatives that caseworkers may just not be comfortable with, they make a preference and they have the power to run with that.”

Minnesota’s relative foster care rates have improved in recent years. In 2019, more than half of children in foster care spent at least some time with a family member. But a coalition is pushing the Legislature to do more this year. 

“We should do everything to preserve the notion of family because families have the resiliency and an opportunity to bounce back,” said Sen. Bobby Joe Champion, DFL-Minneapolis, who introduced the African American Family Preservation Act this session. “If our main focus is to do everything we can in order for families to stay together, then we should give them every opportunity by which to do that.”

‘Absolutely appalling’ racial disparities in Minnesota’s child protection system

More than 6,000 children were removed from their homes for at least one day last year, according to the Minnesota Department of Human Services. Nearly 30% of cases involved caretaker drug abuse, 20% for neglect and 10% were for physical abuse.

Children and families of color are overrepresented in the child protection system. In 2018, Native American children were more than 18 times more likely than white children to be placed in foster care; children of two or more races five times more likely, and Black children three times more likely, according to a state report.

The disparities are “absolutely appalling,” said Lisa Pritchard Bayley, the department’s assistant commissioner of children and family services. The state is working to reduce the number of children who enter foster care and improve racial disparities, she said. Placing more children with relatives is part of that goal.

Research shows kinship care is linked to lower rates of reentry into foster care, better mental health, stronger relationship-building skills and improved overall well-being for children.

DHS is improving training for social workers around relative outreach and cultural competency, and will launch a reimbursement program this fall for organizations providing resources for relatives, Bayley said.

State and county social service staff are all working toward the same objective, she said. But creating change from the state level isn’t easy. Eighty-seven county agencies with varying resources administer child protection cases. Judges have the final say in placement, with input from counties.

“There’s always a healthy tension” between the state and counties, Bayley said. “We have to work together, and we don’t always agree. But when we don’t, we try to work through things and come to a resolution.”

Supporters at the Legislature say the African American Family Preservation Act would reduce the number of Black children who enter foster care, increase relative placement and enhance oversight.

“It will help deal with the complexity and the challenges within the system, and it will require us to have some honest dialogue and honestly try to meet the needs of the family in order for them to stay together,” Champion said.

Another proposal would bring Minnesota’s list of criminal convictions that disqualify prospective foster parents in line with the state’s adoption requirements, which are less restrictive than foster requirements. And a third bill would require more guidance for relatives in child protection cases.

Even absent passage, Village Arms recently partnered with Hennepin County on a pilot program to implement parts of the family preservation legislation. Houston said the pilot has been promising so far, and they hope to use it as a model for counties and legislative reform.

Bias is a barrier for relatives

Current law prioritizes relative placement, but bias and racism can get in the way of keeping families together, lawyers and advocates say. Sometimes caseworkers are reluctant to place a child with a relative because of perceptions that “the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree,” said Rhia Bornmann Spears, a lawyer specializing in child protection and relative placement cases.

Natalie Netzel, advocacy director of Mitchell Hamline Law School’s Institute to Transform Child Protection, said she and her colleagues see a pattern in which agencies and judges favor placing children of color with an unrelated white foster family instead of relatives of color. Far too often, white staff and judges “implicitly rely on white-normative parenting standards” to decide where a child should live, she said.

“It perpetuates some of our worst history in this state with adoption practices,” Netzel said. “It’s all too common that this happens, and it’s a huge, huge problem.”

Brianna Robinson-Harris, a mental health practitioner from Champlin, and her husband have been fighting to foster and adopt her 6-year-old niece since she was placed in foster care in 2019.

She quickly noticed everyone working on her niece’s case was white, including the foster family who staff wanted the child to stay with. Robinson-Harris felt like caseworkers judged her and her husband based on extended family members’ disruptive behavior during meetings, she said. 

“I just feel like if we were white, maybe they would do things differently,” Robinson-Harris said. “Or if they would have spent more time to get to know us, then they would have felt differently.”

(A spokesperson for Olmsted County, which has jurisdiction in the case, declined to comment because the case is ongoing.)

State law outlines caseworkers’ responsibilities to find and consider relatives, but there’s not enough information about how to guide and engage families through the complex placement process, said Mary Boo, executive director of the North American Council on Adoptable Children. 

For family members, the notice that a child needs a temporary home usually comes as a shock, Boo said. It’s a life-altering request to take in a child for an indefinite period, help them cope with a traumatic event and get through the complicated foster care licensing system.

In the meantime, children are often placed with a non-relative foster family. These families are already licensed, ready to take in a child with little notice and, ideally, equipped to help children manage emotional and behavioral issues. If the child is adjusting well with the foster family, relative search and support efforts may not be as robust, Boo said.

“If you have a child who’s in a stable placement, you could see (caseworkers) saying, ‘This is working, I don’t need to mess with this. I have other cases where it’s not a stable placement, and I need to do X, Y and Z,'” Boo said.

Terryl Gordon, a foster care licensing supervisor in Hennepin County, said limited resources and large caseloads can make it difficult for staff to spend as much time guiding relatives through the placement process as they’d like. Still, workers prioritize relatives, contact as many family members as possible, track those efforts and provide support, she said. Most Hennepin County children in foster care stay with family.

“The challenge in child welfare is the same across counties and in every jurisdiction: There’s too much work and not enough staffing and resources,” Gordon said.

Robinson-Harris said her calls to caseworkers went unanswered for days or weeks. At a meeting in December, she told caseworkers she wanted to foster her niece and adopt her, if the girl’s parents lost their rights.

Robinson-Harris’ niece had been in foster care for four months and moved in and out of at least five foster homes, county staff told her. The child was traumatized and struggling, and Robinson-Harris was told caseworkers didn’t want to move her again.

Everyone involved in child protection cases wants to minimize the number of times a child moves from home to home by placing them somewhere stable as soon as possible. If cases drag on, time can be used against relatives, said Misty Coonce, program director of the nonprofit Ampersand Families.

Relatives aren’t identified or engaged quickly in some cases, she said. The longer the child stays with the foster family, the more reluctant caseworkers and judges become to move them again and interrupt the bond they’ve developed.

“It gets really tricky because these things stretch out. People don’t do their work. But then people say, ‘It’s too late now. We can’t make another move,'” Boo said. “Moves matter to kids. But one more move shouldn’t be the reason not to make the placement that’s best for the child.”

Relatives need ‘explanation, handholding, support’

When relatives are denied placement, lawyers recommend they go through a series of steps — like requesting a home study, starting the licensing application and attending court hearings — to move the process forward and show the county and courts they’re serious.

But relatives don’t know where to start when they’re left in the dark.

“There needs to be a lot of explanation, handholding, support and ideally guidance to resources to help families be successful in this,” said Susannah Barnes, executive director of the nonprofit Evolve Family Services. It’s often lacking.

Robinson-Harris said the county’s communications were intermittent at best after the family meeting in December, and almost nonexistent once the pandemic hit.

She felt briefly optimistic when caseworkers visited their home in March and said they would get the couple ready for a home study. Caseworkers said her niece would need her own bedroom, so they moved to a bigger house with a fenced backyard.

They thought they were doing all the right things.

Robinson-Harris didn’t know she should attend court hearings and notify the judge of her interest — later, the court would say they weren’t aware she wanted to foster her niece until October 2020, a year after her first conversations with the county. She didn’t know the county hadn’t completed a background check despite telling her they would, or how to get a home study.

About 50% of relatives referred to Evolve make it through the licensing process, even with the nonprofit’s support, Barnes said.

In some cases, the relatives don’t need to be licensed because the child is reunited with their parents, but in others, families can’t meet the strict requirements or become too overwhelmed, she said. Getting a home ready can be expensive, so Evolve started a fund to help relatives cover costs like buying new fire extinguishers.

The process is time-sensitive. Home studies can take months, and if relatives wait until they get a notice that their family member is being adopted in 30 days, it’s too late, Bornmann Spears said.

Foster care disqualifiers disproportionately screen out people of color

Relatives with criminal charges may be disqualified after a background study. Minnesota’s list of disqualifying crimes is more extensive than many states’ and more restrictive than the requirements to adopt a child.

It includes nonviolent convictions like misdemeanor theft or issuing a bad check, and applies to everyone living in the home.

These disqualifiers disproportionately affect people of color as a result of the racial disparities in the criminal justice system, lawyers say, and can screen out relatives who don’t pose any danger to children. Alexis Oberdorfer, vice president for adoption and foster care at Lutheran Social Service, told legislators in March that she has seen cases where relatives were disqualified for 15-year-old check fraud convictions.

“If somebody has something in their criminal background history, sure, it could present a risk. But let’s assess that. Let’s get the details. Let’s figure out where the family is currently at,” Barnes said. 

Relatives can appeal a disqualification, which the county or agency sends to the Department of Human Services for a final decision. That can take six to 12 months, Barnes said.

In 2019, 260 of the 7,542 background studies completed by DHS resulted in disqualifications — about 3%, according to state data. Of the 260 disqualifications, 111 were not appealed, 107 were appealed and approved, and 38 were appealed and denied. 

It’s not uncommon for agency staff to assume someone won’t be eligible for a license without formally disqualifying them, Netzel said. In those cases, the relative doesn’t receive a written denial, which is necessary to appeal.

“There can be a lot of confusion with social service agencies about what is or is not a barrier to licensure,” Netzel said. “That can be a huge barrier — without doing a full, robust search on the relatives, they can be prematurely dismissed.”

‘The law is on our side’

In October, nearly a year after she had expressed her interest in caring for her niece, a social worker told Robinson-Harris the girl could be adopted by the foster parents “any day now.” The social worker suggested she get a lawyer.

Minnesota law doesn’t guarantee right to legal representation for relatives in child protection cases, meaning relatives have to pay for their counsel — if they can find one. Few attorneys in Minnesota will take on child protection cases, and they’re expensive, Netzel said. Hamline’s Institute for Child Protection can take on about three pro bono cases a year, and they get at least one call for help each week.

Robinson-Harris found an attorney who filed a motion to intervene in the adoption proceedings, which the court denied. Her lawyer felt so strongly about the case that he made her a deal. She’s paying $12,000 for the appeal, instead of the usual $30,000.

During a hearing in December, she told a judge she felt the county hadn’t done their due diligence in considering her for placement. She felt misled, she said.

“Were there probably missteps along the way? I suspect so,” the judge said during the hearing. “Right now, I’m focused on this moment in time — what is in the best interests of this little girl. That’s my sole focus.”

Robinson-Harris and her husband seem like caring people, the judge said. Even if they had sought to intervene in December, he might have kept the girl with the foster family out of concern about disrupting her progress. If they “get it wrong” for the child, he said, “she’ll be the one sitting there having her parental rights terminated when she’s 14, 15, 16 years old.”

Later, Robinson-Harris received some good news: An appeals court would hear her case. She hadn’t been allowed to see her niece for nearly two years, despite the judge recommending they stay connected, and she was optimistic they would be reunited soon.

“I’m feeling hopeful,” she said. “The law is on our side.”

Lakecia Gant isn’t feeling as assured. Awaiting a decision from the state on whether she’ll get a foster care license to continue to take care of her toddler granddaughter, she said she’s confused by the county’s recommendation that she not be granted a license. After all, she said, she was licensed a few years ago, when she was caring for a friend’s teenager.

She’s exhausted and fearful of the toll the stress is taking on her husband and other family members. Her biggest concern is how her granddaughter would handle a move to a stranger’s home. The toddler has been in therapy since she witnessed her mother’s murder in 2019, but she’s still easily frightened and reluctant to leave her family for even an evening, Gant said.

“She’s a strong little girl, but she’s suffered,” Gant said. “We have an opportunity to turn this around with therapy, with love, with support.”

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Rilyn Eischens
Rilyn Eischens

Rilyn Eischens is a former data reporter for the Minnesota Reformer. Rilyn was born and raised in Minnesota and has worked in newsrooms in the Twin Cities, Iowa, Texas and most recently Virginia, where she covered education for The Staunton News Leader. She's an alumna of the Dow Jones News Fund data journalism program and the Minnesota Daily. When Rilyn isn't in the newsroom, she likes to read, add to her plant collection and try new recipes.