Women gather every week to support each other and to heal. They always struggle to put into words the moment their children were taken from them. Because after a Minnesota court ends their parental rights, that’s exactly what happens.
Even years later, their facial expressions still reflected their horror, sadness, and shame. Such stories are common: “They snatched my daughter from my arms while she was crying, and basically told her I was sick and you couldn’t be with me anymore.”
This is why we support pass-through HF922which will establish the Office of Appeals and Training Counsel.
Minnesota does not have a central resource for coordinating or assigning appeals to child protection cases. As a result, families in poverty may not be able to access a lawyer or be able to exercise their right of appeal. This is true in both district courts and tribal courts.
The court’s decision to terminate the parental rights of the mother is life-altering. For these women, time stands still. Intense grief, without closure or ritual, paralyzes coping strategies. Bellis provides groundbreaking emotional support for a mother grieving after her parental rights are terminated. Our Minneapolis-based nonprofit, which is not affiliated with any religious or political agenda, hosts in-person and virtual support groups. Women join from dozens of cities across the country.
As of January 2023, Minnesota law requires parents to appoint an attorney at all stages of child protection proceedings, including through appeals. By law, parents have the right to appeal the final judgment in their child protection case, including an order to terminate their parental rights. Unfortunately, many women tell us they were not informed of their right to appeal. Others say they could not stand it anyway.
Our data shows that women whose parental rights were terminated experienced higher than average rates of early childhood trauma. This trauma can inhibit executive functioning, their confidence in the legal system and their ability to advocate for themselves. Simply planning a trip to court to request case files or to find a lawyer who is willing to file an appeal can be overwhelming.
Access to high-quality legal representation for parents in child protection matters is important, including those in want. But it is also important to the child protection system. It can improve outcomes for children and families.
Without a coordinated effort on appeals, important issues remain unresolved, resulting in patchy application of the law. This affects communities of color the most because of Minnesota’s overall racial disproportion—and it’s the worst for Native American families.
To be clear, all children deserve to grow up in loving, safe homes. Parents in child protection cases deserve access to effective legal representation. The Office of the Appeals and Training Counsellor will provide this accountability. This will help ensure fair and equitable outcomes in child protection cases, which can have lifelong consequences.
Jenny Eldredge is the CEO of Belless. She lives in Elk River.