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It's often traumatic for children and teens to be taken from their parents or other related guardians by the government. Kids can suffer emotional and psychological damage from being ripped from the family they know — even in situations of neglect or abuse.

That's why it's critical for the state agencies tasked with deciding what's best for children to do so with care, compassion and consistency. And it's equally essential that those who make choices on behalf of kids are transparent with their process, well-trained, and offer similar services and support in counties across the state.

A recent report from Minnesota's Office of the Legislative Auditor (OLA) found inconsistencies from county to county in the services provided before children are removed from their families. The independent, nonpartisan OLA showed that some counties provide extensive help to parents to prevent removal, while others offer confusing, limited or no help.

A key finding of the 62-page report shows that more than half of child protection removals begin with emergency law enforcement holds and that officers making those decisions often have little or no training in removing kids. Information about those holds is not tracked at the state level.

Auditors found that racial disparities in treatment persist between children of color and white kids. According to state data, in 2020 Black children in Minnesota were 2.4 times more likely to be removed from their birth parents than were white children, and American Indian children were 16.4 times more likely. And children in both groups were likelier to remain in foster care for longer periods.

Longstanding concerns about equity in Minnesota's child welfare system prompted this and previous OLA reports. The auditor has rightly emphasized the impact of removal decisions, referring to them as "among the most intrusive ways in which the government can intervene in family life."

"This is an extraordinary power that we give to law enforcement, but we don't require them to have anything more than basic training [in child protection] that they get at the beginning of their careers," David Kirchner, evaluation coordinator at the legislative auditor's office, told the Star Tribune.

OLA researchers made several intelligent recommendations for improvements. Among them: that the Department of Human Services (DHS) should take the lead in collecting more data about services offered to families and law enforcement holds; that the Legislature should direct child protection agencies to produce "short, easy-to-understand" materials on what must be done to reunite children and parents, and that DHS and lawmakers should address training for officers in child protection removals.

Federal law has long required states to make "reasonable efforts" to assist families to avoid placement of a child in foster care. Improved data gathering would help the state determine whether agencies meet that requirement.

In response to the auditor's report, DHS Commissioner Jodi Harpstead wrote that the agency appreciated "the thoughtful evaluation of this important issue" and agreed with the report's recommendations as supporting DHS's "efforts to strengthen child protection in Minnesota."

DHS, the courts and law enforcement should follow through on the report. Child protection services that children and families receive shouldn't depend upon their ZIP code — they should be able to expect similar services from any county in Minnesota. And those same families should have access to easily understandable information about what they can do, when warranted, to keep or be reunited with their children.