Thousands of parents show support of child protective services lawsuit against Minnesota
By: Nora G. Hertel August 2, 2018
Correction: This story has been updated to correct the status of Robin Stoltman's husband.
LITTLE FALLS — Robin Stoltman moved two of her children out of Minnesota to maintain custody of them. Amanda Weber did the same thing. And so did Dwight Mitchell when he regained custody of his two children.
The three are among thousands of parents clamoring for change in Minnesota's child custody laws.
Since he moved to New Jersey, Mitchell formed an association of parents and sued Minnesota earlier this year. His group is called Stop Child Protective Services from Legally Kidnapping Children.
The group grew by 3,300 people in 75 days, Mitchell said in mid-July. He's expanding this call for reform to other states and plans to launch federal lawsuits across the country.
He and other reformers claim Minnesota's statutes are vague, unconstitutional and must be changed. Human Services officials at the county and state levels can't comment on custody cases.
"County child welfare workers work hard to protect children every day, and strive to meet the best interests of children and their families. It is frustrating when the public only hears one side of the story," said Minnesota Department of Human Services Commissioner Emily Piper in a statment.
The department opted to provide a statement rather than an interview.
Mitchell's lawsuit against the state is ongoing. So is Weber's battle with Morrison County over custody of her son.
Stoltman felt forced into an open adoption of her firstborn son, now 3, in 2017, she said. She still hopes to get him back.
Here's an update on their stories.
Robin Stoltman: Lost parental rights
Stoltman, 32, moved her two younger children to South Dakota to avoid the Minnesota system.
One is about 6 months old and the other is almost 2 years old.
She told the St. Cloud Times she has a brain injury that raised a flag when her first son was born, she said. Her husband also has a criminal history and attended sex offender treatment. The two divorced for a time with hopes it would improve her chance of gaining custody, she said.
"They used anything and everything against me," Stoltman said.
Stoltman sells educational toys now and claims one parental assessment found her fit to parent with help of some services. Douglas County's case against her claimed neglect and argued she was not fit to parent.
"Ms. Stoltman received a multitude of intensive services for ten months, yet during that time period she was never able to consistently demonstrate for a reasonable period of time the ability to adequately care for the child without needing prompting or oversight," according to the Douglas County Findings and Order dated October 2016 and provided by Stoltman.
The court record mentions Stoltman's changing concerns with her own health, an overreation to minor symptoms in the child, as well as certain activities she completed while the child was in a carrier on the front of her body, which Stoltman denied.
Stoltman allegedly overstimulated the baby and misread his cues and the father's parenting ability was impaired, according to the court document.
But Stoltman said she did everything she could to appease the county officials.
It's a familiar feeling for other parents who've been in that situation.
"They hold your kids and make you do whatever they want," Mitchell said. He describes the child welfare process as unconstitutional.
"No matter what you do, you're always wrong," Mitchell said.
Dwight Mitchell: On a national mission
Mitchell's kids were held by social services after he was reported for spanking one of them in 2014. He moved to New Jersey after he got them back.
He recently started a nonprofit called Family Preservation Foundation inc, he said.
"We need a call center now, because we're getting so many calls," Mitchell said.
His quest for change hit a major nerve in Minnesota and nationwide.
"I was doing what I felt was right. I was doing what I was called to do," he said.
The state filed a motion to dismiss his suit in July and Mitchell's side opposed it, he said. "We're confident it won't be dismissed."
The courts err on the side of caution and remove a child during an investigation, he said.
"If the child is not harmed, the child should remain in the home, period," Mitchell said.
Mitchell takes major issue with the state policy and how it's practiced. For one, the definition of neglect is too vague, he said. And his case highlights a trend in the state in which Native American and African-American children are taken out of homes at higher rates than Caucasian children.
Other reformers have keyed into those issues, including Kelis Houston, who founded Village Arms, which supports African-American families impacted by the child protection system. She also chairs the Child Protection Committee of the Minneapolis NAACP.
"Our statutes recommend that out-of-home placement is a last resort," Houston said. "But it's been used as a first solution."
She said that's true across the board and more so with African-American families.
Just over 15,000 children were placed out of their homes in 2016, according to Minnesota's Out-of-Home Care and Permanency Reports. African-American children were more than three times more likely to be removed from their home compared to white children.
Neglect is the second reason, behind parental drug use, why children are removed from homes, according to the state's 2016 report.
But the concept of neglect is subjective, Houston said.
"The law is vague," Houston said. "It's one of the things that we're hoping to change is the subjective language in the statutes."
Amanda Weber: Fighting for custody
Weber is trying to regain custody of her youngest son, held in foster care by Morrison County officials.
She recently moved her two older children to Wisconsin. They were taken off the case, and Weber's attorneys filed a motion to dismiss the case involving her baby, she said.
"Obviously I've got to be happy that my two oldest children were taken off the case," she said. "I feel a little better. A little safer. I was always afraid they were going to take my girls unfairly as they took my son unfairly."
In court documents, Weber and county officials tell different versions of what happened before Weber lost custody of her son. Social Services investigated Weber in March, when someone reported she left her kids home alone — a claim she denied — according to the county's petition.
In her official response, Weber claims a Morrison County social worker and a primary care physician acted "in bad faith and with malice" and that the social worker fabricated evidence.
"I would never have known that CPS had this type of power," she said of her impression before she lost custody of her son. Since she's shared her experience publicly, Weber said she's heard from hundreds of other parents with similar stories.
She has a termination of parental rights hearing scheduled in a couple weeks, she said.
"I know that it's not over," Weber said. "I'm not going to feel 100 percent OK until it's over, until it's won."
Where's the balance?
Removing a child from home is never just one person's decision. Social workers and other staff work on the front lines, and a judge makes the ultimate custody decision.
"I can say with confidence that county child welfare workers are doing their best, day in and day out," Piper said in her statement. "It’s a difficult situation to remove children from their parents' custody and such decisions are not made lightly. The preference is to place children with family members when possible."
Out-of-home placements are on the rise with rising parental drug use, and counties have called for more foster parents to house those kids.
Mitchell and others with him say it's better to keep children in the house, with their families, unless there's evidence of harm.
Culture is a factor in how people feel it's best to raise children, said Rob Edwards, a licensed graduate social worker and the Minnesota chapter board president of the National Association of Social Workers. Social workers are well-versed to deal with that ambiguity.
Plus, every case is different, he said.
"I'm really hopeful as a system we can balance the needs of children and parents," Edwards said. "Social workers work everyday at that."
Original Article: https://www.sctimes.com/story/news/2018/08/02/child-protective-services-lawsuit-little-falls-children-abuse-court-minnesota-cps/827514002/