‘Really amazing for families’: Child welfare reforms on the horizon in Minnesota

By: - June 28, 2021 7:37 am

The Minnesota State Capitol, pictured in the summer.

The sweeping Health and Human Services budget bill finalized by legislative leaders last week includes two significant child protection and foster care reform measures, which advocates say will help more families stay together and mitigate racial disparities in the state’s child welfare systems.

The bill requires courts to appoint a lawyer in all child protection cases for parents who can’t afford one. It’s a big change from current law, which gives courts discretion to appoint an attorney “in any case in which it feels that such an appointment is appropriate.”

The bill also makes sure some criminal convictions like petty theft won’t stop children from staying with relatives as foster parents. Advocates say the shift will allow more children in foster care to stay with family and lead to better outcomes, especially for families of color who are disproportionately likely to face this obstacle.

“This is important — it’s huge,” said Natalie Netzel, advocacy director of Mitchell Hamline Law School’s Institute to Transform Child Protection, which advocated for the bills. “It is going to be really amazing for families in Minnesota if and when it happens.”

The higher education budget bill includes another win for youth in foster care: A new grant program to cover their college costs. The program is one of the most comprehensive in the nation, said Hoang Murphy, founder and director of the nonprofit Foster Advocates, which helped craft the bill.

“This bill is a recognition of past failures and commitment to do better” for youth in foster care, Murphy said.

Legal counsel for parents

Lawyers and advocates for years have worked to lower the number of children who are removed from their homes in Minnesota and improve outcomes for those who are separated from their parents. 

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. 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.

Because child protection cases aren’t criminal proceedings, the right to an attorney isn’t protected by the Constitution. Minnesota is one of just seven states where legal representation for low-income parents or guardians is discretionary in these cases, according to the Mitchell Hamline Law School’s Institute to Transform Child Protection.

“You get an attorney any time you face jail time,” Netzel said. Low-income parents facing the threat of losing their children should be afforded the same protection, she said.

The right to an attorney would start from the first child protection hearing, which Netzel said is a critical point in the process of deciding whether to terminate parental rights. Having a lawyer can ensure there’s due process from the start, she said.

Rep. Jamie Becker-Finn, DFL-Roseville, who authored the bill, said it was one of the most challenging deals she’s ever worked on. A month ago, she would have said the odds of getting the bill to the finish line were 50/50, she said. 

Lawmakers and child protection workers agreed on the benefits of the policy, but counties worried about how they’d pay for it, Becker-Finn said. A recent change to federal law allowing counties to be reimbursed for these costs helped them reach an agreement, she said.

“I’m really, really pleased that we were able to get this done this year. The sooner we can get this into place, the sooner we can help families,” she said.

Foster care disqualifications

The health and human services bill aims to help more prospective foster parents get through the licensing process by clarifying and shortening the list of disqualifying criminal convictions. 

Minnesota’s current list is longer than most states’ and includes nonviolent offenses, like misdemeanor theft. It applies to everyone in the home, including minors.

Lawyers and advocates say the state’s current policy screens out relatives who don’t pose any danger to children. It also disproportionately affects people of color as a result of the racial disparities in the criminal justice system, they say.

The revised law would eliminate low-level, nonviolent offenses from the disqualifiers and allow the commissioner of the Department of Human Services to make exceptions for minors.

The bill also seeks to remedy the confusion that lawyers say often arises during the licensing process over which convictions are or are not automatic disqualifiers.

It lays out factors a county agency has to take into account before recommending that a foster care license application be granted or denied, based on a lower-level or nonviolent criminal conviction that state law does not list as a disqualifier. Considerations include the type of offense, length of time since the last offense and evidence of rehabilitation, like stable employment, community involvement and substance abuse or mental illness treatment in relevant cases.

Social services agencies would be required to send a summary of their review and licensing recommendation to the Department of Human Services.

Current law doesn’t require documentation, and 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 the decision, creating a kind of bureaucratic nightmare for some families who were not alerted until it was too late.

“It’ll make it significantly easier for kids to be placed with family members, if they need to be removed from their parents,” Netzel said of the bill.

Free college for foster youth

Murphy, of Foster Advocates, said the organization started pushing for legislation to help youth in foster care pay for college after hearing about their struggles to afford higher education.

Navigating college is especially difficult for youth in foster care. They stop receiving many supports and services at age 18 and are disproportionately likely to face homelessness and food insecurity as young adults. 

“Fosters don’t have someone that has been saving for them or even someone who could cosign a loan,” Murphy said. “That makes (paying for college) impossible.”

Anyone between the age of 13 and 27 who is or was in foster care as a teenager is eligible for the new program, which will cover tuition, living expenses, books and supplies at public and most private colleges and universities. The state Office of Higher Education will be required to help aspiring students complete the application and apply for federal and state aid.

“This is the most significant thing that I can think of to help young people at this stage,” Murphy said.

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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.