Black children are placed in foster care and separated from their parents far more often than white children, reflecting a racial disparity in the system that some Black parents are attempting to remedy. A civil rights case recently filed in Minnesota by a Black father who alleges the state kidnapped his children and placed them in foster care shines a light on the scope of what has emerged as a national problem.
Dwight Mitchell, a Black father and a businessman who is a management consultant for multinational corporations, is the lead plaintiff in a federal lawsuit filed in U.S. District Court in Minneapolis in late April. The founder of Stop CPSF From Legally Kidnapping Children, Mitchell resides in Piscataway, New Jersey, but he and his children had been living in Minnesota with his family for the purpose of his work. In the complaint, filed against Dakota County, Minnesota, and the Minnesota Department of Human Services, Mitchell says his children were taken to the police station without his consent in 2014 and ultimately two of the three removed from the home after he had spanked his then-10-year-old son as discipline for misbehavior. The children’s babysitter had called child welfare authorities on Mitchell, the lawsuit alleges. The plaintiff was separated from one of his children for five months and the other for 22 months before he was reunited with them. During that time, Mitchell says, he was not allowed to visit his children.
“For 22 months I was allowed no phone calls, no visits, no letters, absolutely nothing for 22 months. It was 22 months of lost smiles, lost hugs and lost time spent together as a family. Almost two years of not seeing or hearing from my middle son. I was not even being told where he was, so every night I went to sleep not knowing where he was,” Mitchell said recently at a press conference at the Minnesota Capitol with lawyers, parents and State Sen. Andrew Matthews (R), referring to the abduction of his children by CPS as “the most traumatic experience” of his life. “Initially I went through a range of emotions: shock, disbelief, finally overwhelming frustration and despair over something as simple as ordinary parental discipline. I still find it hard to believe that something like this happened to me. … I am well-educated, Christian, homeowner, well-traveled, clean-cut, I have my own business and have been an upstanding member of society for 53 years prior to this incident,” he added. During the time of the separation, Mitchell’s once outgoing and confident son had become withdrawn.
“The state of Minnesota will provide you with a lawyer and a jury trial for stealing a pack of chewing gum, but will give you neither when they take away your child forever,” Mitchell added, referring to attempts by the authorities to permanently terminate his parental rights, despite his fitness as a parent and a court order to reunify his family. Critics also point to the vagueness of Minnesota law, which allows the placement of a child in protective services if a parent causes bodily harm, which the law defines as causing pain, injury or illness.
In addition to seeking $100,000 in damages for keeping the children falsely imprisoned in state custody and other costs, Mitchell wants an end to overly broad laws that disproportionately harm Black families, and child welfare policies that remove children without a court order or a warrant, and deceptive practices that are a violation of civil rights and constitutional protections, including “Using trickery, duress, fabrication and/or false testimony or evidence, and in failing to disclose exculpatory evidence, in preparing and presenting reports and court documents to the Court.” The complaint also calls for federal oversight over Minnesota child protective services, a recodification of all state child protection laws, a temporary suspension of all child protection proceedings, and a jury trial for all cases involving a termination of parental rights, with a right to an attorney for the indigent.
Mitchell–who has started a Facebook group for his newly formed organization and a Change.org petition to stop the “legal kidnapping” of children by CPS–is helping other parents get their children back as he pursues his own case. He is planning to file an injunction to shut down Minnesota CPS in early June. “Minnesota has the sixth largest removal rate of children in the nation,” Mitchell told Atlanta Black Star. “We’re basically going to drive a stake through the heart of CPS,” he added. The Minnesota Department of Human Services has an annual budget of $16 billion, Mitchell says, of which $10 billion comes from the federal government. The state keeps 25 percent in administrative fees, he says, and the state constructs their programs to maximize federal funding.
While Mitchell has had the benefit of a private attorney, he realizes that many parents with no financial means face an even more difficult predicament in the child welfare system. “There’s no public defender for social services,” he said. A common practice is for child welfare to charge parents for the foster care in which their children are placed–services parents like Mitchell did not want. “You took my children illegally and you want me to pay for foster care? You must be out of your natural born mind,” he said.
“There is a movement, everyone who has seen my case is rallying around me. Finally, someone is sticking up,” Mitchell said. “I knew there were a lot of people who were used and abused but no one took it forward. And everyone who took it on a federal level, they were dismissed.”
According to 2016 state data in Minnesota, Black children are three times more likely to end up as wards of the state than white children. Mitchell’s group says the figure is five times higher. The odds are even greater for multiracial and Native American children. While more than half of Black families are investigated at the discretion of child welfare officials, 39 percent of white families are subjected to investigations. Further, Black parents are more likely to lose their parental rights, with their children placed in foster care, sometimes with white foster parents who may be culturally insensitive to the needs of these children.
“You’ll be surprised to know the majority of people taken into CPS custody are not for physical or sexual abuse,” Mitchell said. The father of three noted the prevalence of social worker discretion, which allows for racial bias and removal of children based on claims of “endangering the welfare of a child” without providing specifics or devising a safety plan to keep the child at home. “They all lie,” he said of the social worker. “It’s happening to everyone. And it’s happening nationwide.”
Minnesota state lawmakers have sought a remedy to the racial injustices of a child protection system due to differences in how allegations are reviewed, the manner in which parents are screened and assessed, and how incidents are resolved. The Minnesota African American Family Preservation Act was introduced in both chambers of the state legislature in March. The bill would create an African American Child Welfare Oversight Council, monitor the treatment of Black families by child protective services, and “promote the stability and security of African American families by establishing minimum standards to prevent arbitrary and unnecessary removal of African American children from their families.” The legislation, which would make termination of parental rights more difficult, would also allow parents to petition for family reunification when children are at least 10 years of age. At this point, the bill has stalled because the required hearings have not been scheduled, and due to a lack of Republican support.
Elsewhere in the country, the issues of foster care and termination of parental rights among marginalized populations are receiving attention.
A Pennsylvania appeals court issued a stinging rebuke to a family court judge for abusing her authority, going out of her way to separate a baby and family and terminate parental rights, and keeping the baby in a “protracted foster care.” In a May 4 decision, the state Superior Court said Philadelphia Family Court Judge Lyris F. Younge was at best negligent, and at worst intentional when she “did everything in her power” to tear a baby from her parents with no regard for their rights. Younge would not allow the parents to have representation from two lawyers, refused to allow the grandmother to care for the baby, would not allow medical evidence to explain the child’s broken ribs, and kept the baby in foster care to coerce a confession of abuse from the parents. The judge “provided the evidentiary platform” to make the social worker’s case for terminating parental rights, the court ruled. “In essence, this is an example of judicially-created parental alienation,” the opinion read.
On the federal level, immigration agents are separating undocumented immigrant children from their parents in detention, even preparing to imprison children on military bases. When asked whether separating children from their mothers is “cruel and heartless,” White House chief of staff John Kelly replied,”The children will be taken care of — put into foster care or whatever.”
Nationally, children of color are over half of those entering the foster care system. Black children are placed into foster care rather than provided in-home services at a rate twice that of white children with the same circumstances. The child welfare system has a punitive approach to people in poverty, with case workers more focused on finding fault with parents than prioritizing the needs of children and providing services to alleviate the family’s problems.
The disparate treatment of white and Black parents by the child protection system — particularly in child abuse investigations — came to light with the fatal SUV crash that killed a white married couple, Jennifer Jean Hart and Sarah Margaret Hart, and three of their six adopted Black children. The vehicle plunged off a California cliff in an apparent murder-suicide. Among the other three missing and presumed dead was Devonte Hart, the subject of a viral photo in which he embraced a Portland, Oregon, police officer following the grand jury decision not to indict cop Darren Wilson for the police killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri. There were reported signs of abuse of the Hart children, with Devonte going to neighbors begging for food, as his adopted parents were not feeding him. Devonte’s biological mother, who lost custody due to substance abuse, said her son was given over to monsters.
From the perspective of Black parents, there is a war on the part of child welfare to steal their children. Dorothy Roberts, who is a law and sociology professor at the University of Pennsylvania and author of “Shattered Bonds: The Color of Child Welfare,” notes that the child welfare system amounts to group-based harm and excessive state interference in the Black family. In her book she argues that issues of race and class in government repression are missing from many critiques of the child welfare system. “The new politics of child welfare threatens to intensify state supervision of Black children,” Roberts writes, with federal and state policy shifting from preserving families to terminating parental rights and “freeing” foster children for adoption.
Welfare reform has thrown more children, disproportionately Black, into poverty and increased their chances of placement into foster care. This, she notes, as harsher treatment of juvenile offenders translates into increased incarceration of children. All of this destroys Black families. “Child protection authorities are taking custody of Black children at alarming rates, and in doing so, they are dismantling social networks that are critical to Black community welfare” she writes.