Black Children Are Overrepresented In Minnesota’s Foster Care System. Here’s What Is Being Done To Keep Black Families Together

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Black families in Minnesota are fighting to keep their children from being unnecessarily placed in Child Protection Services (CPS). A bill that could help address the racial disparities in the state foster care system, specifically the disproportionate number of Black children who encounter the system, is again front and center at the state capitol.

The Minnesota African American Family Preservation Act, which was first introduced in 2017, acknowledges the historical and ongoing impact of systemic racism on African American families and seeks to reform policies and practices contributing to their overrepresentation in child welfare systems. By preventing the unnecessary removal  of African American children from their families, this law seeks to prevent harm.

As of April 15, the bill has gone to committee in the House for consideration. The current version of the law was renamed the Layla Jackson Law, after a 17-month-old Black infant who was murdered in 2018 by a white foster parent in a home where, according to court documents she was “racially harassed” and “mocked” before being beaten to death.   

Jackson was removed fro the care of her mother Latsha Bacon because of a broken leg. “A child protection report concluded that while ‘the offender was unknown,’ the mother had failed to provide a safe environment for the children. A judge agreed and ordered the children removed while Bacon went through the court-ordered steps to get her kids back,” KARE11 reports.

But foster parents Jason and his wife Jessica Betlach were never vetted, trained, or licensed by the state. Before social workers were able to set up an interview with the Betlachs, it was already too late. Jackson died after Jason Betlach violently shook her, and she arrived at the hospital brain dead.  

The most recent Minnesota Department of Human Services Out-of-Home Care and Permanency legislative report from 2021 shows that African American children were twice as likely as white children to be placed in out-of-home care, and children who identified as two or more races were seven times more likely. Additonally, the report found that “care lasted longer and was less likely to end in reunification for those children.”

According to the American Bar Association, “[o]ver 50 percent of Black children in the U.S. will experience a child welfare investigation before their eighteenth birthday (nearly double the rate of white children).” In addition, “[n]early 10 percent of Black children will be removed from their parents and placed into foster care (double the rate of white children).” Moreover, “[o]ne in 41 Black children will have their relationship with their birth parent or parents legally terminated (more than double the rate of the general population).”

The Minneapolis branch of the NAACP filed a federal civil rights lawsuit alleging the child welfare system is discriminating against Black families, and especially so in Ramsey County and Hennepin County, whose Child Protection Services (CPS) placed Jackson with the Betlachs.

“Black children and families have long endured suffering at the hands of Minnesota’s child welfare system,” stated President of the Minneapolis Branch of the NAACP Cynthia Wilson. “It’s a sad day when advocates must step in to protect our children from the very agency that is supposed to serve them. The Minnesota government has failed us. Now, it’s up to our federal government to right these wrongs and correct the course of justice. We urge the Office of Civil Rights to accept our complaint and take the necessary steps to hold our state institutions accountable for the harm they have inflicted.”

Under the Layla Jackson Law legislation, which is now pending in Minnesota, “state and counties would have to take steps to prevent out-of-home placement of African American or disproportionately represented children, including children with disabilities, mental illness or those living in low-income homes.” If a court did find that an out-of-home placement is necessary, a family member or family designated friend would have to be prioritized.

“There have been situations where parents who don’t have any previous criminal history, they want to be parents, but they might just be struggling a little bit, have had their children taken away from them, because of a misunderstanding,” said Rep. Esther Agbaje who authored the House version of the bill in 2023. “Sometimes the knee jerk reaction is to remove a child from what is perceived to be an unsafe space, and then it’s not. So then what ends up happening is we create a sense of trauma and damage to that child.”

Service providers are supportive of the intentions of the bill, but are concerned about the currently available resources to meet the new requirements that would be in place if the bill becomes law. “We’re concerned that we won’t be able to do it, that without investment from the state in services, in workforce and technology that we’re going to be set up to fail,” stated Stacy Hennen, Western Prairie Human Services director and Traverse County Social Services director.

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