2021 in review: Bias in foster care, unsolved shootings and Line 3 resistance

By: - December 27, 2021 7:18 am

Roughly 2,000 people rallied at the state Capitol Aug. 25, 2021 to protest Enbridge’s Line 3 oil pipeline. Photo by Rilyn Eischens/Minnesota Reformer

What a year! It’s hard to know what to say about the year that we’ve all had, but I do know that I’m incredibly grateful to be wrapping up another 12 months with the Reformer team. I feel lucky to be doing this work with such a smart, kind, scrappy newsroom.

This was a year of many new experiences, including my first time covering a full legislative session (I don’t think last year really counts), a few trips up north to cover Line 3 and reporting on other new-to-me topics like social services.

Here are three stories I wanted to revisit from 2021:

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

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)

I think this piece about how bias and barriers in the foster care system keep families separated gets right at the Reformer’s mission: to share stories of people affected by the actions of government.

Brianna Robinson-Harris, a mental health practitioner from Champlin, and Lakecia Gant, a grandmother living in Minneapolis, told me about their separate experiences fighting to foster or adopt children in their families whose parents weren’t able to care for them. State law requires that caseworkers prioritize relatives for placement in these cases, but both women experienced firsthand how bias, lack of support and legal barriers often get in the way — especially for families of color and low-income families.

The situations they faced were heartbreaking and not at all uncommon, experts told me. There have been some positive developments since then, however. The Legislature approved two significant child protection and foster care reform measures in the spring: one requiring courts to appoint a lawyer in all child protection cases for parents who can’t afford one, and another to make sure some criminal convictions like petty theft won’t stop children from staying with relatives as foster parents.

If you shoot someone, you’ll probably get away with it

Deena Winter and I set out this year to find how many shootings in Minnesota are solved each year. It wasn’t an easy question to answer, but after months of work, we published this story showing that the vast majority of shootings go unsolved.

This is also one of those stories where the data that don’t exist are just as important as the data that do. Agencies aren’t required to track shootings or whether they solve them, so some just don’t.

For me, one of the biggest lessons is just how dismal our data on violent crime are, especially gun violence, and the story sheds light on the importance of good data collection in solving big, complex problems like these. It’s tough to improve performance when you can’t evaluate it in the first place.

Oil and water: Resistance, construction intensify on Enbridge’s Line 3 pipeline

Opponents of Enbridge’s Line 3 pipeline protested at a pump station near Cloquet on Aug. 20, 2021. Participants were encouraged to wear drag in support of Two-Spirit and LGBTQ members of the anti-Line 3 movement. Photo by Rilyn Eischens/Minnesota Reformer.

Just under a year ago, I made my first trip to Aitkin County to report on Enbridge’s Line 3 oil pipeline. Those few days were a crash course for me in getting to know the lay of the land — both literally and figuratively — for this project that was both complex and contentious in just about every way imaginable.

The fight against Line 3 had been going on for years, but it kicked off big-time when construction started in late 2019. It’s strange to think how one of the biggest stories in Minnesota for the past 12 months has, for the most part, fallen off the radar. I think it’s something that will be worth revisiting as we continue to grapple with the central issues behind the debate.

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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.