What if you knew the kids who lived with their family next door to you were being abused? Not being fed? Or never went to school? Is there anything the courts could do to protect and help those kids?
In the last fifteen years in Minnesota the number of child protection cases has skyrocketed. The local (county) prosecutors have filed these kinds of actions for years but not in the high numbers they do now.
What constitutes a child protection case and what are the grounds for starting one?
Typically, most cases are brought into court because the child needs protection or services. It can be either or both for the following reasons:
1. Chemical use/abuse by the parents that affects the welfare of the child.
2. Violence in the home. It may be directed at the kids but doesn’t necessarily have to be.
3. Sexual assaults. By the parents against the kids or between the kids.
4. Garbage house including drugs and drug dealing in the home.
5. Educational neglect where the parents fail to get the kids to school.
The process starts with a social worker from the county attempting to work with the parents to eliminate the problem unless there’s an immediate danger to the kids in which case they will be removed right away. If the work doesn’t change the conditions, a county prosecutor will file a petition in Juvenile Court and everyone will have to appear before a judge. The judge makes a decision if it’s safe and in the best interest to leave the kids in the home or remove them temporarily.
State statutes mandate that the government must work with the parents and provide services with the goal of reunification of the entire family. The parents are given a case plan, devised by the trained social worker, to complete in order to correct the problems.
If the government doesn’t agree to reunification of the family the parents have a right to a trial to fight any termination of their parental rights.
So, who watches out for the kids?
The judge’s decisions are always based fundamentally upon “what’s in the best interest of the children.” In addition, the kids are assigned a social worker for them and often, a Guardian ad Litem. In Minnesota, if the child is over 10 years old, they also have a right to a lawyer, usually a Public Defender.
The toughest aspect of these cases is that no matter how bad the conditions are at home, kids usually want to go back home. If they’re removed from the parents, the kids are placed either in shelter housing or temporary foster homes. It’s natural that they would like to be back in their own homes instead. Parents feel the same way–they want the kids home.
But what if it isn’t safe to go home? Judges must make that call. Sometimes, they must even terminate parental rights forever. So, on the one hand while they’re protecting kids, the judge may be tearing apart a family. Tough, tough decisions.