TEN MINNESOTA CHILDREN BRING FEDERAL CLASS ACTION AGAINST HENNEPIN COUNTY AND STATE FOR FAILING TO KEEP THEM SAFE
T.F. v. Hennepin County
Ten Minnesota children brought a federal class action against Hennepin County and the state of Minnesota today for failing to investigate properly reports of their being abused and neglected, failing to provide appropriate services to them or their families, and failing to provide safe foster homes or secure permanent homes.
The lawsuit, known as T.F. v. Hennepin County, names as defendants Hennepin County, the county and state agencies responsible for child welfare services, and the individuals who run those agencies, including, among others, Hennepin County Administrator David J. Hough, who provides county oversight to its Department of Health and Human Services (“the Department”), and its Children and Family Services (“CFS”) division, and Jennifer DeCubellis, who is Hennepin County Deputy Administrator for the Department and also oversees CFS, as well as Emily Piper, the Commissioner of the Minnesota Department of Human Services.
“Minnesota, and particularly Hennepin County, now operates one of the worst child welfare systems we have seen,” said Marcia Robinson Lowry, one of the lawyers for plaintiffs. “Despite an acknowledged need for serious reform, a recent federal audit has shown extremely poor performance, and children are being harmed.”
Available public data suggest that, in many ways, Hennepin County’s child protection system is among the most deficient in the nation. The lawsuit alleges Hennepin County is failing to protect children jeopardized through physical and sexual abuse and neglect. It asserts that its child protection system has devolved into a confusing, underfunded, and erratic system that is inflicting significant harm on the children it is responsible for protecting and keeping safe. Despite a 2015 report documenting systemic failings in Hennepin County, rather than improving or expanding the services the Department offers to children still living at home, the county has instead:
- Increased the number of children removed from their homes or legally available for adoption.
- Failed to increase either the number of places for children in safe and appropriate shelter care and foster care, or the number of permanent adoptive homes for children.
- The county fails to employ a minimally adequate number of caseworkers—caseworkers are assigned caseloads well in excess of national standards.
- The county does not provide training or support necessary for caseworkers to carry out their responsibilities — many social workers do not even have desks to do their work.
- Generally, caseworker morale is low and turnover is high.
Reports of Abuse and Neglect
- The county screens out, and fails to investigate at all, far too many reports of alleged abuse and neglect.
- Investigations into abuse are often incomplete or not completed within deadlines designed to protect children.
- Supportive services are not offered at all in many of the cases in which child maltreatment has been reported and screened in for investigation or family assessment.
When Hennepin County does remove children from unsafe homes, data show many children:
- Are not properly protected or cared for in custody;
- Languish in an inadequate emergency shelter system and/or are placed in poorly managed and dangerous group homes or foster homes;
- Experience multiple destabilizing moves between foster homes;
- Even when available for adoption, remain as state wards for years or, in too many cases, until they become legal adults and age out of the child protection system.
The suit tells the stories of 10 children, ranging from ages four to 14 years. Several have been physically harmed in foster care, all have been emotionally harmed, and none of these children have yet been placed in a permanent home. See the children’s stories in the complaint.
In August 2016, Minnesota failed the third federal audit of its child welfare system, conducted by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services to assess the performance of child welfare systems across the country. Minnesota did worse on this audit than it has done in prior audits, in 2001 and 2007. The state failed to conform with any of the seven outcomes related to the permanency, safety, and well-being of children in foster care, and was only in substantial conformity with one of the systemic factors. Systemic failures permeate every aspect of Hennepin County’s child protection system.
The lawsuit asks the court to certify the case as a class action on behalf of all foster children and to find that the defendants have violated these children’s constitutional, federal and state law rights.
“From the smallest issues to the largest, Hennepin County is failing its most vulnerable children,” said Marcia Robinson Lowry, an attorney for plaintiffs in the lawsuit. “The state has the responsibility for ensuring that each county follows the law, and is defaulting on that. The situation has gone well beyond a critical point, and something must be done to protect children.”
The child plaintiffs in the lawsuit are represented by:
- Faegre Baker Daniels LLP, the largest law firm in the State of Minnesota, with a team headed by James L. Volling, a partner of the firm;
- Marcia Robinson Lowry, executive director of A Better Childhood, a nonprofit advocacy organization committed to reforming child welfare systems across the country; and
- Eric Hecker, an experienced New York civil rights litigator.
A Better Childhood is a national child welfare advocacy organization that represents foster children in dysfunctional child welfare systems. Marcia Robinson Lowry has been working to improve failing foster care systems for more than 30 years, as the founder of Children’s Rights and currently as the founder and executive director of A Better Childhood. Her work has resulted in stronger laws and better lives for thousands of children in states across the country. She is also a lead counsel in foster care lawsuits in Mississippi, New Jersey, New York, Oklahoma, Texas, and the District of Columbia.