The fight to keep more black kids in their homes

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Latagia Copeland-Tyronce was only six years old when she and her sister were removed from their mother in St. Paul around 1991 and placed into foster care. Decades later, Copeland-Tyronce maintains that their separation from their mother was “unjust and unnecessary.” 

They, like thousands of other black children in Minnesota, became entangled in the state’s child welfare system for two years before finally returning to live with a parent. Minnesota’s “Child Maltreatment Report” (2016) indicates that black children are three times more likely than their white counterparts to be investigated by Child Protection Services (CPS) and wind up in out-of-home placement. 

Her encounter with CPS in the early ’90s, said Copeland-Tyronce, subjected her and her sister to mental, physical and emotional abuse and times of outright neglect at the hands of their new, so-called guardians and the involved caseworkers. Copeland-Tyronce suspects her mother was also severely traumatized by the situation. 

Copeland-Tyronce and her mother believed the local authorities were biased. Her mother subsequently became active in advocacy for black children unnecessarily separated from their family. 

Copeland-Tyronce took up the baton of activism from her mother and started the #BlackMothersForChildWelfareReform movement. She also went to school and emerged equipped with multiple master’s degrees, including one in social work, and the knowledge that fixing this problem will require legislation. Copeland-Tyronce and advocates like her have worked with a black member in the Minnesota House and Senate on a bill to reverse the disproportionate rate of black kids in placement. 

Sponsored by State Rep. Rena Moran of District 65A from the House and State Sen. Jeffrey Hayden of District 62, the Minnesota African American Family Preservation and Child Welfare Disproportionality Act (commonly referred to as AAFPA), seeks to “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.” 

AAFPA’s aims if passed

The bill will “help enable African American children to live their best possible lives,” said Moran. Ideally, the law will ensure that black children and their parents will be treated equitably at each step of the child protection process, from initial reporting and assessment to discharge. 

Relying heavily on data from the Minnesota Department of Human Services and Ramsey and Hennepin counties, stories from parents impacted by the system, and consultation from child welfare advocates like Copeland-Tyronce and nonprofit Village Arms founder Kelis Houston, the bill proposes to invest more in the family members before separating them.  

The bill also clearly spells out how local welfare agencies should conduct themselves while dealing with black children. Lying about a child’s need of protection, services, or home removal and withholding or fabricating any material related to the case would be strictly impermissible. Any employee who fails to comply would be charged with a felony and face up to two years of jail time and a fine of $4,000. 

Minnesota Department of Human Services Deputy Commissioner for Policy Claire Wilson said the MDHS supports the spirit and effort of this legislation. “The disparities in Minnesota’s child protection system are alarming. We are committed to working together with legislators and other partners to continually improve our initiatives to support families,” Wilson said. 

Future plans, further action 

It has been more than a year since Moran and Hayden first introduced the Minnesota African American Family Preservation Act to both the MN House and Senate during the April 2018 legislative session and subsequently reintroducing the bill this past spring. Yet it still remains in a state of active limbo in the legislature. 

Though the bill (HF 342) has not passed in its entirety, some parts of it have already become law. These include the clause that blocks the termination of parental rights of black parents who fail to complete case plan requirements during child placement proceedings. Also passed into law is a clause requiring that people working in the child protection system receive African American cultural competency training. 

To make the whole of the AAFPA the law of the land, Moran is bringing stakeholders and community members together this fall to look at ways to move the bill forward. Hayden is working on the bill in the Republican-led Senate that, Moran stated, has “made the pathway more difficult.” 

To see what can be implemented at the local level, regardless of legislation, Hennepin County staff have been working closely with Houston and Village Arms, a Minneapolis nonprofit that specializes in helping black families who’ve come into contact with child protection. Outside of eliminating statutes that get in the way of equitable child protection, Health & Human Services Deputy County Administrator Jennifer DeCubellis said doing the right thing does not always require legislation. 

“We have worked alongside community members and legislators to address the disproportionate numbers of black children in child protection. We share the concerns and intent of the legislation. No one wants to see children removed from families, and our intention should always be to provide services and supports a family needs to thrive and keep children safe,” said DeCubellis. 

Hennepin County and Houston say they are working on ways to emphasize early intervention. The aim is to develop services that help families reduce or eliminate maltreatment and circumstances that lead to visits from child protection services. 

“This is a huge lift, and we cannot do it alone. We need community partners like those behind this effort to lean in and build together a system that works for everyone,” said DeCubellis, “with a shared vision of wanting healthy children and thriving families.”