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Minnesota counties vary widely in how they approach the removal of endangered children from their homes, with stark disparities in the involvement of local law enforcement agencies and access to services designed to keep families together, according to a legislative auditor report released Friday.

The Office of the Legislative Auditor (OLA), an independent, nonpartisan arm of the Legislature, found that some county child protection agencies provided extensive services before seeking to remove a child — a traumatizing experience for both the child and parents. In other agencies, preventive services were limited; or the child was removed before services were offered to the family.

Federal law has long required states to make "reasonable efforts" to assist families to avoid placement of a child in foster care. However, neither the Minnesota Department of Human Services or the state court system systematically tracks what prevention services have been provided to families before a removal, the legislative auditor found.

"The report clearly identifies key considerations and recommendations that could lead to greater efficiency and equity in the process of child removals and support efforts to reunite more children with their families, all of which aligns with DHS' goal of improving the child protection system in Minnesota," said Human Services Commissioner Jodi Harpstead in a written statement.

The 62-page report arose from longstanding concerns about equity in Minnesota's child welfare system, and the legislative auditor's office repeatedly stressed the high-stakes nature of removal decisions, referring to them as "among the most intrusive ways in which the government can intervene in family life."

The auditor found that most child protection removals in Minnesota begin through 72-hour emergency holds by local law enforcement agencies when a child is determined to be in danger. But the use of these holds varies widely across jurisdictions. In some counties, more than 80% of out-of-home placements began with a law enforcement hold. In others, fewer than 40% did. Often, these removals occur rapidly and before social workers begin providing services in the home.

There were also wide variations in what happens to children after they are removed by local law enforcement. In some counties, such as Beltrami in northern Minnesota, more than 90% of emergency holds lead to court orders keeping the child in foster care or other out-of-home placement. But in other counties, over one-third of law enforcement holds end without such court orders and the county no longer has custody of the child, the report found.

At the same time, the legislative auditor found that vital information, such as which law enforcement agencies are using emergency holds, is not tracked at the state level. There is also no statewide requirement for continuous training of police and other law enforcement officials on child protection issues, even though these officers account for most child removals.

"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," said David Kirchner, evaluation coordinator at the legislative auditor's office.

Meanwhile, birth parents seeking to regain custody of their children face a confusing patchwork of local rules, according to the auditor's report. Once a child is removed, counties are required to create detailed plans describing actions that parents must take to reunite with their children. However, these documents can be 15 to 30 pages and difficult for families to decipher. Similarly, court orders in child protection cases can include terminology that may not be understandable to people without legal training.

"Parents dealing with the removal of a child should receive clear, simple instructions regarding the specific requirements placed upon them," the report said.

The report comes as Minnesota is showing progress in keeping families together. The number of children removed from their homes because of abuse or neglect has dropped 36% from its all-time high in 2017. All told, 4,812 children were removed from their homes and placed in foster care in 2020, down from 7,482 in 2017, according to the most recent Department of Human Services data.

The sharp decline in removals is partly related to the COVID-19 pandemic. The early shutdowns of schools and other activities meant there were fewer eyes on children and fewer opportunities for teachers, doctors, coaches and others to report signs of maltreatment.

In addition, counties and tribes are having more success in finding stable homes for children — minimizing the trauma of breaking families apart. In a widely used measure of the system's performance, the share of Minnesota children who bounce back into foster care after being returned to their parents (known as the "re-entry rate") has fallen sharply over the past four years. Statewide, 12.7% of foster care children in Minnesota are returned to care within a year after being reunited with their families. That's down from 18.3% five years ago, according to a state dashboard.

Yet racial disparities are deep and pervasive statewide.

Children of color have long been overrepresented in Minnesota's child welfare system, and that has shown only modest progress in recent years. In 2020, Black children in Minnesota were 2.4 times more likely to be removed from their birth parents than white children; American Indian children were 16.4 times more likely, according to state data. State data also show that Black and American Indian children stay in foster care for longer periods, extending the trauma of separation from birth parents.

"I find it really disturbing that we have African American and Native American kids being removed from their homes at disproportionate rates in cities and towns across our state, while the people making these decisions are not even being trained," said Rep. Rena Moran, DFL-St. Paul, who has introduced legislation to protect Black children from unnecessary removals.

The auditor's office made a half-dozen recommendations for improving consistency and oversight of the child welfare system. These include that DHS take the lead in collecting more data about law enforcement holds, including which agencies use them. The auditor also recommended that the Legislature direct child protection agencies to produce "short, easy-to-understand" documents for parents outlining the steps they should take to reunify with their children.