Changing the Narrative, Changing the Status Quo

Kelis Houston went from working in the system to fighting the system alongside parents to address the inequitable treatment of African-American families that she saw. After trying to make change on the inside, Houston and the parents she worked alongside went to the streets, the press and the state legislature to try to force change.

Before I became active in trying to reform the child welfare system, I worked at the emergency placement unit of Hennepin County’s central intake shelter for five years. It’s the first stop for children just removed. Almost 100% of the children were African American and they remained with us much longer than their Caucasian peers. I spent time getting to know some of the parents and I realized, “These are good parents.” 

I also served as guardian-ad-litem for three years and witnessed blatant racial bias. For example, I was assigned to an African-American mother with infant twins. She was locked out of her home on a hot summer day and her babies became overheated. She and a relative brought the babies’ temperatures down with cold compresses but not before CPS was notified. Her children were immediately removed and placed with non-relatives. 

In contrast, a Caucasian mother used illegal substances while driving with her child and crashed her vehicle. CPS was notified but the child was not removed until her third or fourth DUI. Her child was placed in relative care and returned much sooner than the African-American babies. I witnessed this trend throughout my entire time as guardian.

Making Allies, Engaging the Community

After two or three years of begging the administration to do something about the inequitable treatment of African-American families, I became chair of the Minneapolis NAACP’s child protection unit, and started joining parents together and bringing parents to the legislature to testify. We gave countless interviews to reporters. We had a rally at the capital to say black children matter. We needed parents willing to be vocal because if we continue to allow CPS to claim that they’re keeping children safe when they’re not, they can continue with the status quo.

We also started working to pass a bill called the African American Family Preservation Act (AAFPA).

The act would make sure social workers make active efforts to keep black children at home, and when out-of-home placement is necessary, place children with kin. Any party to the case could petition the court for reinstatement of parental rights. Right now, the only person who can is the county attorney who asked to terminate those rights in the first place.

Last year the legislation moved swiftly through the House with all yes votes, but it was killed in backroom discussions. They blamed it on the fiscal note. We know that the Department of Human Services didn’t want to see the bill passed. 

But our allies are growing. Still, it has been hard to keep the momentum going because a lot happens during the workday, when youth and parents aren’t available. We don’t have money to pay anyone so it’s all volunteers. 

One of our strongest voices, Latonia Rolbiecke, is a grandmother who has been fighting for her grandchildren. She is still going through it and she is still experiencing trauma, but she is able to come to meetings with senators and show up in these spaces and be very helpful. 

We have also been making allies with organizations that share our vision, like the Black Civic Network and Black Women Rising. It didn’t take any convincing to get them on board. Some of them had had personal family experiences. They were aware of the injustice, and how broken system is.

The last big event we had was this past summer. We had a panel discussion about the trauma caused by child protective services. I was on the panel. So were two former foster youth, someone from the Black Civic Network, an historian who tied the experience to the history of Africans in this country, and a psychologist who talked about attachment disorder.

The room was filled. All chairs were taken. It was all community members showing up. A lot of folks who had had personal experience with CPS wanted to share their stories. There was a lot of crying. We had therapists there to help out if people needed to talk more.

Mainly it allowed us to raise awareness and engage the community and talk about why it’s important for them to lead the work.

In the Streets and at the Table

One of the most surprising things that has come out of all of this is that Ramsey County contracted with me to implement some of the protocols to deter children from out-of-home placement that come out of our legislation. They’re implementing times of safety. They’re implementing safety maps. A lot of conversations are happening now that weren’t happening before we started getting media attention and getting the legislature to pay attention.

I’m also responsible for getting families with contact with the system to be on an advisory board. Ramsey County is giving us the lead to decide who is at the table, and they will be paid for their time. That’s a win for families in Minnesota.

There’s a new director at Ramsey County who has a different vision. I volunteered in Ramsey County for two or three years before they hired me, so she’s well aware that I don’t change the narrative regardless of who I’m at the table with. It’s actually pretty dope. They’re really intentional at Ramsey that the people who work for them and the people advising the work mirror the population served. What I realized is that I can be on outside screaming and I can also be at the table showing from the community perspective what needs to change.

This interview was adapted from Rise.

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