The most provocative message delivered at a March 23 forum on out-of-home placement racial disparities in Hennepin County was that community members need to rethink the role of Child Protection in their lives, and to call the agency on family, friends and neighbors as an absolute last resort.
“The vast majority of children in the child protection system in the Twin Cities area, in Minneapolis, come from five zip codes,” attorney Rhonda Simpson Brown told the small audience gathered at Sabathani Community Center in South Minneapolis. “Now, what that should automatically say is not that children in the other zip codes are not victims of abuse and neglect, because they are, and they’re not in the Child Protection System.
“I’m trying to say that the people in the other five zip codes — there wasn’t a police call to the house,” Simpson Brown continued. “Is it because there aren’t children who aren’t left alone? Is it because there are no children experiencing neglect or abuse? No. But I suspect that part of it is that they are communities who bring people in — in fact I know this — to make sure that the community, and particularly, the children in that community, win. And they win because the children are safe, and they appear to be safe. That’s two different things.”
Simpson Brown, who has worked in family and juvenile law for 17 years, said that she is tired of being called to community forums on out-of-home placement in order to discuss “how we can keep on losing. I can’t help you with that,” she said. “Because when you start from what the police do wrong, what Child Protection does wrong, what courts do wrong — and you can find fault at every step of the way in that system — that’s already a loss.
“Now, it’s easy to criticize the police. We could all find fault with the police. But you see, she [Minneapolis Police Department Sargent C.J. Johnson, who also spoke at the forum] has to keep doing what she’s been doing, and no one in this room is going to convince her to do any differently. And she shouldn’t be convinced to do anything differently, if she follows the law. It’s not a win to try to tell her she’s wrong. She’s doing the job, just as the statute said. I know the statute. She’s right.
“But there are a whole set of statutes designed to keep children safe, and even to protect children who’ve been abused and neglected, that have nothing to do with Child Protection. And what I find is that when I’m brought in to talk to community groups, they’re community groups who are completely unaware of this entire body of law.”
“People talk about kinship,” Simpson Brown continued. “There are two kinds of kinship in the law. One has nothing to do with Child Protection. There are statutes designed so that extended family members, even people who are completely unrelated to a child, can take the child into his or her home, beclothed legally with the authority of legal and physical custody of that child. And raise that child. Put that child on their own health insurance through their job, even if they’re not related to the child. Even after the child’s been abused and neglected — in fact, that was why somebody stepped in and did it. It’s 257C, it’s called De Facto Custodian and Interested Third Party.
“We also have statutes where you can be a stand-by custodian, or a temporary guardian for a child. Note that I’m not talking about adoption. I’m not talking about terminating anybody’s parental rights. I am talking about the beauty of the law. But it’s the part that people in five zip codes don’t know. It’s already there. It’s in place. And I keep getting invited to conferences about how to lose.”
The law is written in order to communicate that the government is the last, not the first, responder to children experiencing abuse and neglect, Simpson Brown said. “That’s a surprise to a lot of people — those who work in Child Protection, and who have children in the system, who actually think, ‘If a child is abused and neglected, the government’s supposed to be involved.’ That’s not the law. The government is the responder of last resort,” she said.
“What I’m really saying is when you call Child Protection on your sister’s kids, rather than taking your sister’s children and getting legal and physical custody of them, so that they can be safe, and Child Protection has never heard of your kids, your niece and nephew, you’re part of the problem,” Simpson Brown continued. “And the law is there to help you do that.
“I’m not talking about what happens once you’re in the Child Protection system, and then you’re looking for a kinship caregiver, and you’re trying to get Aunt Peaches Licensed Foster Care. You’ve already lost. Stop talking about losing!
“I’m talking about keeping children safe. And if something bad happens to a child you’re related to, or lives in your community, the law is there so you can step in and take care of this child. And Child Protection will never know that child’s name because you took care of that child.
“Look, what do you want to tell me? ‘Well, I don’t want to fight with my sister about the kids.’ OK, but then don’t complain if the child gets placed. Do you see what I’m saying? You have to make a hard choice. And our job should be to take care of our sacred trust: our children.”
Other panelists, including Police Community Relations Council Co-Chair (PCRC) Rev. Ian Bethel, Hennepin County Child Protection Area Manager Lynn Lewis, and Parental Advocates Linda Raino and Jacquelyn Cooper, focused more on the scope of the problem.
“Within Hennepin County, we have over 267,000 children,” said Lewis. “Of that number, we see that 69 percent are Caucasian, and 14 percent are African American. When we look at our services in Hennepin County Child Protection, we see that we service 29 percent Caucasian and 44 percent African American. So the number in that is really glaring, and we’re aware of this disparity issue within Hennepin County.”
Cooper said, “My situation started in 2003; that’s when my nightmare began. They came in, and they took my children, and they put me through the ringer to get them back. And my problem with the system is that everything they made me do to get my children back, I had already done it when I got out of an abusive relationship. So to me, I did everything as a mother to better me and my children. And still, my children were taken from me, and abused in the foster home that they put them in, before they got to my grandmother’s.”
Bethel called for a massive, community-wide movement to “put County and State agencies out of business. Children don’t need to be under the care of systems,” he said. “Kids need to be in homes. And we have some of the best folks in the business — and it is a big business — here in our state. But we need to let them find some other jobs. Let the County use that money to deal with other, good kinds of work. That’s our vision.”
If you would like to be involved in addressing the challenges of the Hennepin County out-of-home-placement system, or the Hennepin County foster care system, please contact African American Women-Men in Need, 411 E. 38th St. S., in Minneapolis, at 612-827-9264.