T.F. v. Hennepin County

Plaintiffs: 10 foster children, aged 4 through 14

About Hennepin County, Minnesota’s Foster Care System

  • About a quarter of Minnesota’s children in foster care are in Hennepin County.
  • In 2015, a Casey Foundation report documented systemic failings in Hennepin County’s implementation of its child welfare programs.
  • Since 2015, Hennepin County has seen an increase in the number of children moving into state custody. At the same time, the county has failed to increase the number of safe shelters, foster placements, or permanent adoptive homes to take care of these children.
  • The number of Hennepin County children who return to foster care after reunification with family has been steadily increasing over the past four years.
  • In August 2016, Minnesota not only failed the third federal audit of its child welfare system but it did worse than it had done on prior audits.
  • Caseworkers in Hennepin County have caseloads far in excess of national standards.
  • Caseworkers in Hennepin County lack training and support. Many do not even have desks.
  • Children in Hennepin County’s care are not properly protected or cared for  while in custody. Frequently, they languish in inadequate emergency shelters or end up in poorly-managed and dangerous group homes.
  • Too many children in Hennepin County remain as wards of the state for years until they become legal adults and age out of the child protection system. By that point, they have lost their entire childhoods and suffered years of abuse and neglect.

Allegations

Minnesota and Hennepin County have violated children’s constitutional, federal statutory, and state law rights. Despite recommendations from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, the situation in Hennepin County is only growing worse, and Minnesota is failing to ensure that the county follows the law. The county regularly fails to investigate reports of alleged abuse and neglect. To the extent investigations occur, they are often incomplete or too slow to protect children from further abuse. Even when child maltreatment has been confirmed, supportive services often do not exist.

Even after acknowledging a need to reform its system, Hennepin County has made few measurable improvements. Its foster care system remains underfunded, erratic, and negligent. Therefore, children continue to experience trauma and harm on a daily basis while under public care.

Advocacy Goals

Hennepin County is failing its most vulnerable children. ABC, and its partner the law firm of Faegre Baker Daniels, filed this class action lawsuit to ensure that Minnesota and Hennepin County implement remedial steps to fix their broken systems and protect the children in their care. We seek to ensure that the state of Minnesota properly oversees Hennepin County. In addition, ABC is fighting for improved maltreatment investigations, increased recruitment of qualified foster care homes, and increased and timely permanent placements for children. Our goal is to bring both the state and county into compliance with their constitutional, federal, and state legal obligations so that children in the foster care system of Hennepin County are safe.

Update

The county and state defendants initially moved to dismiss all allegations in the complaint. The defendants were unsuccessful.

The court quickly denied their main argument, that the court should abstain on the basis that the periodic review proceedings in state court constituted “ongoing state proceedings” to which the federal court should defer, despite the fact that this suit was filed as a class action and raises system-wide issues. In so doing, the court definitively rejected the notion that abstention can apply in a child welfare case raising systemic issues, based on recent US Supreme Court precedent. This important ruling effectively reconfirms that abstention is not a valid defense in a class action child welfare lawsuit.

The court went on to acknowledge the very serious nature of the concerns that the lawsuit raises. It reaffirmed the plaintiffs’ essential due process rights and allowed ABC to replead its state law claims and one of its federal claims. Currently, ABC is seeking to file an amended complaint that would, in addition to addressing the open legal issues, add in another plaintiff, an 11 year old child who lived in what the local press described as a “house of horrors.”

Plaintiffs have now begun discovery and are seeking a discovery schedule from the court.

Plaintiffs

Here are three of our plaintiffs, using pseudonyms

T.F. is a 12-year- old boy who has suffered for more than seven years in the foster care system in Minnesota. When T.F. was five, a Minnesota county child protection hotline received reports that T.F.’s mother neglected him and used drugs. T.F., at age five, was identified as a child in need of protection. T.F.’s family moved to Hennepin County, T.F., then seven years old, entered the county’s protective supervision. After T.F.’s mother failed a drug screening, Hennepin County removed T.F. from his mother’s custody. In two months, the county shuttled T.F. among three different hospitals and two different shelters. Over the next two years, T.F. endured placements with non-licensed foster care, shelter care, and abusive foster care homes. During this time, T.F.’s mother and father voluntarily surrendered their parental rights. Despite the fact that T.F.’s foster parent was often abusive, Hennepin County made no efforts to find T.F. an adoptive home for him. At age 10, the county removed T.F. from his foster home and he spent an entire year at a residential treatment center. The staff restrained him physically almost 100 times. Since February 2016, T.F. has lived in a Minnesota Intensive Therapeutic Home. Due to the county’s repeated failure to provide him with a stable home and to prevent abuse, T.F. has suffered physical emotional, and psychological harm. He has been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder, ADD, oppositional defiant disorder, and generalized conduct disorder.

K.D. is an 11-year- old boy who lives in a court-ordered out-of- home placement and is a ward of the state. Since he was 14 months old, K.D. has been under the eye of Child Protective Services in three counties in Minnesota. Starting in 2015, Hennepin County began to receive reports of maltreatment for K.D. Over the years, the Department received multiple reports of verbal and physical abuse, neglect, and sexual abuse. When K.D. was three, he tested positive for cannabis in his system. At one point, a staff member from K.D.’s school reported that the child was threatening to hang himself. In all of these instances, the various counties opened investigations and closed them with no services or follow up. In 2015, when K.D. was nine years old, Child Protective Services received another report that K.D. had again threatened suicide, and K.D. finally entered foster care. In foster care, K.D. was hospitalized in a psychiatric facility but did not meet his guardian ad litem for the first three months. He was not appointed an attorney until June 2016, nearly five months after he was eligible for counsel. While in foster care, he has been shuttled from one facility to another with no attempt to find him a permanent placement. In a recent neurological evaluation, the doctor concluded that K.D. had suffered “severe neglect” and “ongoing physical abuse” that had altered K.D.’s brain chemistry.

C.O. is a seven-year- old girl who has been known to Hennepin County since she was three years old. After receiving several reports of physical injury and maltreatment, Child Protective Services received a report of sexual abuse in 2015 by C.O.’s grandmother’s boyfriend. (Subsequently, the boyfriend was sent to jail based on the evidence.) In early 2016, the Department became aware that C.O. was missing an excessive amount of school and the family was homeless. Despite ongoing evidence of sexual abuse and maltreatment, the Department did not remove C.O. from her mother’s custody. Instead, they offered C.O.’s mother services to address mental illness and homelessness. Even when C.O.’s mother failed multiple times to attend sessions with her field worker, the Department did not enlist police help to find the family and to help C.O. Finally, after months of delay, C.O. was court-ordered into protective custody. Since entering foster care, C.O. has had to move foster placements due to the manifestations of her neglect
and abuse. She suffers from behavioral outbursts and aggressive behavior. In her first placement, the foster family used unapproved discipline techniques in an attempt to manage C.O. Recently, C.O. was diagnosed with PTSD.

Case Documents