Racial disparities in child welfare lead to legislation in Minnesota and a federal complaint

Layla Jackson never returned to her mother.

The cheerful, attentive 17-month-old baby was murdered by her foster father in 2018.

Latasha Bacon said child protection workers should not have removed her daughter from her care after the girl returned from a babysitter with a broken leg. Bacon, who is Black and Native American, is part of a movement demanding that Minnesota rethink its child welfare system, which has disproportionately penalized families of color.

“Nobody wants to say, ‘Racism is still alive.’ No one wants to say our system is broken,” said Bacon, who counsels other parents involved in child welfare. “Many of these parents are blamed for neglect because they are broke and living below the poverty guidelines. Instead of getting the resources, they just take their children away.”

A Minnesota family’s chances of filing charges of child abuse vary dramatically depending on their race. This also applies to the chance that a child will be removed from his family or later reunited with him.

The Minneapolis chapter of the NAACP recently filed a federal civil rights complaint alleging discrimination in the child welfare system is devastating Black families, especially in Hennepin and Ramsey counties.

Advocates are also pushing for action at the state Capitol, where they hope lawmakers will pass legislation this session to address unequal outcomes after years of failed efforts. The bill is called the Layla Jackson Act.

“African American families enter the system for less serious charges than our white peers, yet we still face the most harsh and punitive outcomes,” Kelis Houston, chair of the local NAACP Child Protection Committee, recently told the legislators. “What we are asking today is that this state stops harming our children.”

The state focuses on differences

African American families have been the focus of recent advocacy, but state data show wide disparities in child protection for many demographic groups. The differences are especially large for Native American families.

Native American children are 16 times more likely to be removed from their families than white children in the state, according to the state’s most recent report on out-of-home placements. Children who identify with two or more races are seven times more likely.

African American and Hispanic children are twice as likely as their white peers to be removed from their homes. Children with disabilities are also disproportionately represented in foster care.

The Capitol bill, which has been expanded to include African American and “disproportionately represented children,” aims to ensure that there are “active efforts” to keep a child with his family or reunite him as quickly as possible; that child welfare workers receive cultural competency training, and that a portal be created for people to report non-compliance with the law. It would also establish a grant program to provide training for social services, legal aid, culturally specific family counseling and other services.

The legislation does not yet have a price tag.

Associations representing counties, social services administrators and county attorneys have said they support the overall goal, but have also raised some concerns. Counties have said the law won’t pass without more state spending to strengthen child welfare staff, services, training and technology. And county attorneys proposed changes to the bill that they said would better provide “necessary safeguards for public safety.”

“Safety is of course paramount,” said Rep. Esther Agbaje, DFL-Minneapolis. But if Child Protective Services gets involved, she said, “We also don’t want to be too burdensome on people who are just trying to raise their families.”

Some of the bill’s objectives are already being implemented. The Department of Human Services created the African American Child Well-being Unit in 2020, which is launching a pilot program to provide $3 million in grants for community efforts to prevent child abuse and keep families together.

The state unit also has established an advisory board to review data, provide guidance on priorities and assess issues, said Tikki Brown, assistant commissioner for children and family services at DHS. The legislation would enshrine the advisory council in law.

Lawmakers are also working on a bill to strengthen a decades-old state law that expands the federal Indian Child Welfare Act, which governs the removal of Native American children from their families.

“Our Native children were removed for very discretionary reasons” and held in foster care longer, said Sen. Mary Kunesh, DFL-New Brighton.

Counties have failed to notify tribes of child protection procedures and are not ensuring tribes have a say in foster care placements to keep children with relatives, she said. Her bill aims to ensure these steps are taken and would require court officials to ask about Native American heritage in all child protection proceedings and make it easier for tribes to participate in that legal process.

Hennepin, Ramsey County Critics

The NAACP’s civil rights complaint calls for an investigation into discrimination and the way federal funds are used in Minnesota’s child welfare system. It focuses on Hennepin and Ramsey counties.

Cindy Devonish, a Hennepin County child welfare worker and member of the NAACP, said she has seen the disparities firsthand and told lawmakers she was removed from a case in which she objected to the termination of parental rights.

“This is unequal treatment that comes at a high cost to our community as a whole,” Devonish said.

The NAACP asked the federal government to force Minnesota and the counties to comply with the Civil Rights Act and urged the state to create additional procedures to document racial equity issues. Concerns were raised about emergency removals of children by law enforcement, a lack of services to support Black families, and the state’s safety and risk assessment tools.

Ramsey County agreed that DHS needs to update its risk assessment tool, noting that having more children in a home can contribute to a child being determined to be at higher risk. But Kathy Hedin, Ramsey County’s deputy district manager of health and human services, said focusing on emergency relocations does not accurately reflect how they are addressing the disparities. Such holds, which allow Child Protective Services to assess whether an unsafe condition exists, are typically initiated by law enforcement and do not automatically result in permanent removal, she said.

Both Ramsey and Hennepin County staff emphasized that they have added services that help support Black families and keep them together. In 2020, the Hennepin County Board declared racism a public health crisis and officials launched a three-year pilot with Village Arms, an organization dedicated to reducing child protection disparities for Black families.

Village Arms leaders say their pilot strategies, which are being considered by state lawmakers, could be successful: 90% of the 200 families the group worked with avoided having a child removed from their home. But those who worked on the pilot say they also saw disturbing behavior from some child protection workers in the province.

“We have seen some of the most blatant racist attacks on those trying to prevent out-of-home placement of African American children,” said Thomas Berry, co-chair of the NAACP Child Protection Committee, which worked on the Village Arms pilot, which ended in December.

Jodi Wentland, deputy county administrator for human services, said Hennepin County officials have been working since 2017 to transform the child welfare system and eliminate racial disparities.

“This work is difficult and complex,” Wentland said in a statement. “Above all, we want children to be safe at home, in healthy, stable families.”

Star Tribune staff writer Christopher Magan contributed to this story.