How long are Minnesota children waiting?by Elizabeth Stawicki, Minnesota Public Radio,
Dan Gunderson, Minnesota Public Radio
Research shows that one of the best ways to help children in foster care is to get them into permanent homes as soon as possible. The longer they're in limbo, the higher the risk they will suffer emotional damage. Because of that, state and federal law requires courts to meet strict timelines for finding children permanent homes.
But it's impossible to tell how well the state's doing at meeting its goals. Minnesota Public Radio found the state can't provide accurate data on whether judges are following the law. Even without data, there are signs that they aren't.
St. Paul, Minn. — Aisha Mandel is 23, and while growing up she lived with more foster families than she can count. She's never felt close enough to any of her foster parents to call them mom or dad.
When Aisha was 4, Aisha's mother left her, her two brothers and one sister at a crisis nursery. Her father was gone.
Hennepin County gave Aisha's mother five years to kick her drug habit and provide a suitable home -- and put Aisha and her siblings in foster care. Her mother couldn't kick drugs and the county took away her parental rights.
Aisha was then 9, but was never told that a judge had made a decision. She continued to wait, thinking she might be going home.
"So this is the paper that I show. This had all of my brothers' and sisters' names. But there's myself and it says, 'This matter, having been heard in the juvenile court on -- there you go -- October 25th, '93. Children weren't notified of the proceedings since they were under 12,'" Mandel says.
Mandel lived for several more years without knowing whether she was going back to her mother. Then, her foster mother told her. Aisha says getting adopted would have been phenomenal, in comparison to a childhood that was always on hold.
"You feel like you're alone in the world. You feel like this is just the layover until the next place I'm going to," Mandel says. "How do you grow as people if you're moving from place to place and what does that teach you about life and how things should be?"
The Minnesota Legislature had children like Aisha Mandel in mind when it passed the "permanency law" about a decade ago. Lawmakers designed the statute to prevent children living in what one judge termed "foster care storage."
Under the permanency law, troubled parents like Mandel's mother no longer have five years to clean up their lives. If their children are older than 8 years old, they have one year. If their children are younger than 8, they generally have six months.
At that point, a judge has to decide where to put the child permanently, which often means adoption or placement with relatives. The idea is to view the wait through the eyes of a child, where even one year seems like an eternity.
To find out how the permanency law is working and whether judges are following the timelines, Minnesota Public Radio asked Minnesota's court system to provide data on how long children were living in temporary care. The results were surprising and confusing.
In some counties, as many as half of the cases appear to be out of compliance with state law. Other counties had no cases out of compliance.
Judge Thomas Bibus is the lead judge for Goodhue County's Children's Justice Initiative, or CJI -- a collaboration between the courts and human services to improve the child protection system. According to the data, 30 percent of Goodhue's cases were out of compliance. But that, says Bibus, probably isn't accurate.
"When you look at the data, at first it appears to be a real nightmare," says Bibus. "There's one file I did a summary that indicates there is a violation of the permanency limitation by a total of 2,391 days. As I examined the file, the data is completely wrong; the case was finalized in a year's time rather than going for six and a half years."
We asked several judges to review data for their counties in an effort to find out whether the errors were anomalies. Each judge found errors in the data.
Ottertail County Judge Wally Senyk is project chairman for the Children's Justice Initiative. The collaboration is a state effort designed to ensure that all Minnesota's 87 counties provide timely, safe, stable, permanent homes for abused and neglected children.
Senyk says the courts are aware there are errors in data. He says in many cases, judges track their own cases so errors might not cause a problem. But he says accurate data should still be a priority.
"I believe it is critical to a good government, a healthy society, for there to be confidence and public trust in the court system. That should apply moreso than other areas to the way in which we protect children, the most needy and unprotected among society," says Senyk.
Officials say the errors were caused by moving case information from an old database to a new one. That transition is still underway, having been delayed several times.
The Minnesota Department of Human Services tracks each county's compliance rate, but doesn't keep information on individual cases or judges -- so there's no way to know which judges are following the law.
Without accurate, statewide data on each individual judge, there's no simple way to know how long children are waiting in foster care. Judy Nord is staff attorney for the Minnesota Supreme Court, and manages the Children's Justice Initiative or CJI.
"That doesn't mean that cases are falling through the cracks, or judges aren't doing their jobs, they are and you can tell that by looking at the files. I've looked at many of the files and I'm involved in ongoing efforts to do that," Nord explains.
Nord says there are between 14,000 and 15,000 children in foster care placement in Minnesota each year. About a one-third of those are child protection cases.
The data accuracy problems don't surprise a leading researcher in the field of child welfare. Esther Wattenberg coordinates the University of Minnesota's Center for Advanced Studies in Child Welfare. She's put disclaimers on her research because it was impossible to get accurate data from the state.
Despite the state's Child Justice Initiative, or CJI, Wattenberg says the lack of interest in insuring accurate data stems from the complexity of child welfare system itself.
"In some regions, judges are rotating. Their understanding of child welfare may be minimal. Their interest in child welfare may be very minimal. That variability is quite remarkable, and I don't think CJI has quite tackled that issue," says Wattenberg.
In talking to judges, prosecutors and public defenders, it's clear that the courts view the permanency timelines as goals rather than mandates.
Lisa McNaughton is the managing attorney for the Hennepin County Juvenile Public Defender's office. McNaughton echoes what many judges have said -- it's hard to meet the timelines when chemical dependency or mental health problems are issues. Just getting into treatment programs can take time.
"The timeline's ambitious, especially the six months for children under 8. It's difficult for people to get into programs. There are waiting lists, and it's not always clear what a parent has to do to get back on track and get their kids," McNaughton says.
Hennepin County's Chief Juvenile Judge, Pamela Alexander, says even if judges aren't meeting the deadlines in every case, it's much better than it was before the Legislature passed the law.
"When I came here, we had 300 or 400 families we didn't know where they were; they were out in the community somewhere and where are they?" says Alexander. "And we said, we have to have more accountability here, and the judges became more involved in it, then the accountability piece really did ratchet up."
Many in the court system share Alexander's sense of progress, but without accurate statewide data, there's no way to know what's happening. The federal government will audit Minnesota later this year, but it will only look at 50 cases.
Aisha Mandel, who waited for a permanent home that never came, says she hopes those who work in the child protection system -- social workers, attorneys and judges -- never lose sight that children are behind the numbers.
"Most of the places where I lived I'd get home from school, go to my room, close the door, and it was Aisha by herself," she says. "I hope the adults that are making the decisions really understand that they're dealing with a life, and how important it is that everything that happens in your childhood is going to impact the person you grow to be."
Aisha Mandel is working in a bank and studying business and economics at a Twin Cities college. She thinks about moving to an apartment with more amenities -- like a garage. But she never leaves her current home. She says she's moved enough in her life, and is enjoying the stability.
- All Things Considered, 02/19/2007, 4:50 p.m.
Elizabeth Stawicki, JD, covers health care reform for MPR News.