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The efforts to keep Black children from going into foster care in Minnesota

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

Across the country, Black children are placed in foster care at disproportionately higher rates than white kids. In Minnesota, a law already exists to try to keep families together, but it isn't working. That is why some lawmakers are trying to create extra safeguards to keep kids with their families when possible. Here's Minnesota Public Radio's Dana Ferguson.

DANA FERGUSON, BYLINE: When her son was eight months old, DeClara Tripp noticed that Zhakari didn't seem like himself. Her son looked tired, and when she picked him up, Tripp noticed he was having trouble breathing. Tripp laid him on the ground and helped him breathe until paramedics came. At the hospital, a doctor diagnosed Zhakari with a brain bleed. Soon after, they told Tripp that investigators would likely interview her about potential abuse in the home.

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DECLARA TRIPP: Then I said, OK, well, that's fine. I'm innocent. I don't care if you investigate me.

FERGUSON: While Tripp maintained that her son's health issues stemmed from premature birth, investigators said they found signs of potential neglect, and they refused to place Zhakari with a family member while the case played out in court, saying that could return him to an unsafe environment. That was 2015.

TRIPP: So they didn't do things, as it says in the statute, to prevent out-of-home placement, to keep Zhakari with kin, to strengthen the family, provide services. They did none of that.

FERGUSON: For four years, Zhakari funneled through a variety of foster homes. Throughout that time, Tripp fought to regain custody and to clear her name. The case against her was ultimately dismissed, but Tripp says both she and Zhakari experienced trauma from the process.

TRIPP: His name was changed to Zach. They cut his hair. They provided medication that - like, the flu shot, I'm totally against.

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FERGUSON: Tripp, along with other Minnesota families affected by the child welfare system and civil rights groups, says the state's child protection system needs more safeguards to keep Black kids with family or friends. Despite efforts by state and local officials to address the outsized representation of African American families in the child protection system, rates haven't budged in nearly three decades.

KELIS HOUSTON: Disparities for African American families exist at every decision point of the child protection process.

FERGUSON: Kelis Houston is chair of the Minneapolis NAACP's Child Protection Committee.

HOUSTON: Once the call comes in, if the family is Black, they're 2.4 to 4.7 times more likely to be screened in. We're screened into investigations at higher rates than any other group for discretionary reasons.

FERGUSON: Under pending legislation, the state and counties would have to take steps to prevent out-of-home placement of African American or disproportionately represented children. And if a court finds that out-of-home placement is needed, they would have to prioritize a family member or friend designated by the family. The bill's backers say it's critical that the state build in extra steps to avoid discrimination in the system.

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ESTHER AGBAJE: Rather than saying, you know, there may or may not be something wrong with this parent, but, you know, we want to keep the child safe. So we would just like to try to see how much can that be prevented at the front end rather than going through all that strife.

FERGUSON: That's bill author Representative Esther Agbaje.

AGBAJE: Because 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 the sense of trauma and damage to that child.

FERGUSON: Along with its path through the legislature, some lawmakers raised concerns about the bill allowing children to be placed in unsafe situations. Others, like GOP Representative Ron Kresha, said it could strain the system.

RON KRESHA: I think this is going to create more schisms and fighting for resources, which I think is the opposite of what you're hoping for.

FERGUSON: Stacy Hennen says that's what she's worried about, too. She works with child protection services in Western Minnesota and says she supports the policy, but...

STACY HENNEN: 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.

FERGUSON: Lawmakers in Oregon and Washington also debated revising laws around neglect. They also said they hope to address situations where families are screened into the child welfare system. I'm Dana Ferguson, NPR News in St. Paul. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

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