Nathaniel Hurse was standing under the warming lights of a hospital nursery in south Minneapolis when doctors delivered wrenching news: His tiny newborn grandson, Cartier, was born with cocaine in his system.
Hurse, 69, a longtime social worker, immediately sensed that his life was about to change forever. “I knew that if I didn’t provide him with a loving home, then he would end up with strangers, and there was no way I was going to let that happen,” Hurse said.
Today, nearly three years later, Cartier is healthy, happy and thriving, but his grandfather’s fears of losing the boy to the child welfare system are still very much alive. That’s because in December, Hurse received official notice that he was disqualified from being a foster parent in Minnesota after a state background check revealed a 1976 burglary conviction in Connecticut, before Hurse stopped using drugs and turned his life around. The notice means that county workers can remove Cartier from his grandfather’s apartment in St. Paul at any time. “Why should something that happened over 40 years ago interfere with my right to love and to care for my grandson?” Hurse asked.
Minnesota has long had among the most stringent foster-care licensing standards in the nation. More than 100 crimes, many unrelated to child safety, can prevent potential foster parents from obtaining a license under existing state law.
As a result, children’s advocates maintain, children are being removed from otherwise stable foster homes without regard to their foster parents’ fitness, and then placed with nonrelatives, triggering unnecessary trauma and delaying efforts to place them in safe, permanent homes.
Now, an emerging coalition of black parents, civil rights attorneys, lawmakers and local government officials is seeking to relax these restrictions amid a broader push to find family foster parents for the soaring population of Minnesota children and adolescents being removed from their birth parents because of substance use.
A bill now under consideration in the Legislature would reduce the number and change the type of crimes that bar a person from becoming a foster parent and would bring Minnesota’s licensing standards more in line with federal standards and the rest of the country.
“We know that whenever we remove kids from their homes and place them with strangers, that is very traumatic,” said Rep. Rena Moran, DFL-St. Paul, author of the legislation. “We have to move unnecessary restrictions out of the way so that more of these children can be placed within their own families and communities.”
The campaign to ease restrictions is also being driven by growing alarm over wide and persistent racial disparities in Minnesota’s child welfare system.
The state’s long list of disqualifying offenses disproportionately affects people of color, say civil rights attorneys, because these communities have a higher rate of interaction with law enforcement.
In 2018, black children in Minnesota were nearly three times more likely to be removed from their birth parents than white children, and American Indian children were 18.2 times more likely, according to a recent state report.
Overall, the number of Minnesota children in out-of-home care, primarily foster homes, has nearly doubled over the past six years to 10,070 children in 2018 — roughly the population of a small city.
State social service officials attribute much of the increase to the opioid epidemic: Starting in 2016, parental drug abuse eclipsed neglect as the single most common reason for children being removed from their birth parents in Minnesota.
In Minnesota, a person can be temporarily or permanently disqualified from becoming a foster parent based on dozens of nonviolent crimes, including forgery, shoplifting and possession of stolen property.
The list of disqualifying offenses goes far beyond those established in 2006 under the federal Adam Walsh Child Protection and Safety Act, named after a 6-year-old boy who was brutally murdered.
What’s more, Minnesota’s law has far tougher penalties than many other states, with potential foster parents disqualified for seven to 15 years for a wide variety of nonviolent crimes.
Mary Lennick, executive director of Family Alternatives, a Minneapolis-based private foster-care agency, said she has seen potential foster parents disqualified for crimes as petty as stealing a ski lift ticket and writing a bad check. “A majority of these have nothing to do with a child’s safety or well-being,” she said.
Since 2017, approximately 320 people have been disqualified from being a foster-care provider in Minnesota based on violations found in state background checks, according to the state Department of Human Services (DHS), which conducts the checks.
Overall, about 5% of foster-care license applications have been denied over the past five years, state data show.
Dennis Frazier, a child protection worker in St. Louis County in northeast Minnesota, said the restrictions are impeding efforts to keep families together by placing children with relative foster parents at a time when his county is struggling with a surging caseload of children needing care, he said. “The truth is, some of the best, most loving foster parents may have some scars in their life,” said Frazier, who is also president of AFSCME Local 66 in Duluth. “But we eliminate a lot of really good people because we have rules that don’t take their unique experiences into account.”
Robert Small, a retired judge who now is executive director of the Minnesota County Attorneys Association, noted that Minnesota’s current restrictions for foster care are stricter than state adoption standards. “It makes no sense,” said Small, who supports the bill to relax the rules. “There are simply too many heartbreaking stories of people disqualified for crimes, like shoplifting, that do not relate to their ability to be a foster parent.”
On a recent morning, a playful Cartier wrapped his thick arms around his grandfather’s neck, buried his face in his chest and said, “Papa! I don’t want to go!” Hurse calmly rocked his grandson for several minutes before getting him ready for day care. “Come on, buddy,” coaxed Hurse, as he hoisted him in the air. “We’ve got places to go.”
From the day that county child welfare workers asked Hurse to take care of his grandson, Cartier (nicknamed “Santana” by family) has defied the odds.
He went from being a weak and sometimes lethargic infant, affected by his mother’s prenatal drug use, to a bulky, ebullient toddler who now speaks some phrases in Spanish and is among the most popular kids at his nearby day care.
When it’s too cold to play outside, Cartier plays peek-a-boo with his grandfather and skips down the hallways outside their apartment.
“He’s even learned how to say ‘hypothesis’ and ‘Black History Month,’ ” beamed Hurse. “He’s thriving here. I can’t imagine him anywhere else.”
Hurse never thought that an arrest record from his distant past — what he calls “my other life” — would haunt him and his grandson.
Hurse grew up in New Haven, Conn., surrounded by drugs and violence. By the time he was a teenager, he was taking heroin and sticking up local shops with a crew of other adolescents.
Their crime spree came to an end one night after he was caught leaving the scene of a robbery at an A&P supermarket. Hurse would spend 40 months locked up at a maximum-security prison in Somers, Conn., for armed robbery.
“I was an angry and frustrated kid, and I didn’t see a future,” he said.
Now, after four decades as a parent, teacher and social worker, those years seem far away. After leaving prison, Hurse became a licensed drug and alcohol counselor and worked at several treatment centers while also going to school to earn master’s degrees in social work and business administration.
Now a behavioral health consultant, Hurse estimates that he has undergone at least a dozen background checks for various agencies without ever being flagged as a security problem.
That is, until now.
Just before Christmas, after taking care of Cartier for nearly a year, Hurse received a brief form letter from the DHS notifying him that he was disqualified from being a foster parent because of his criminal record.
He is appealing the finding, arguing that the state should make an exception because of his clean record since the robbery conviction and because he poses no threat to children.
Still, without a foster-care license in hand, Hurse has few protections. Cartier is technically in state custody, and county child protection workers can remove him at any time.
“The sad part is, my grandson didn’t do anything to deserve this,” said Hurse. “If they take him away, it’s almost like the state is saying, ‘You can never be free of your past, no matter how much you accomplish in your life and how hard you try.’ ”