Little Court of Horrors

In Anoka County juvenile court, meth and red tape are playing hell with the fate of children

Part one: The court of first and last resort

It's pushing 1:00 when Judge Stephen Askew puts off taking a lunch break for the third time. The hall outside Courtroom 10, one of two wood-paneled rooms in the far corner of the Anoka County Courthouse where juvenile cases are heard, is still packed with people. Askew is hearing child protection matters, cases that typically require the presence of upward of a dozen people. There are family members, social workers, prosecutors, court-appointed child guardians, and a sea of attorneys. Each parent gets his or her own lawyer, as do older children; add stepparents, custodial grandparents, foster parents, or any other interested party, and the number of people mushrooms. It's easier to postpone lunch than it is to reassemble everyone.

Today is one of two days a week when the four judges presiding over juvenile cases in Anoka take turns hearing the sundry check-ins and updates that punctuate each family's trek through the system. The tenor of the proceedings is half Grapes of Wrath, half Jerry Springer. And Askew, a short man with wire-rimmed glasses, a neatly trimmed fringe of gray hair, and a perpetual half-scowl, looks wrung out.

Outside the courtroom, the hallway is dingy, poorly lit, and lined with old pews. Clumps of adults spill into it from two small, equally oppressive waiting areas. Some confer quietly, a sign that when their case is called, Askew will hear that there's a consensus. Other groups are arguing or squared off at opposite ends of the hall, suggesting that the judge will have to decide each and every detail.

The courtroom itself is brighter, thanks in part to a long window overlooking the entrance to the county jail. In place of the twin desks where prosecutors and criminal defendants square off in other courtrooms, Askew's bench overlooks an oval conference table ringed by pink rolling chairs. Behind that is a gallery consisting of three rows of blue-upholstered seats. The hearings are open to the public, but the only people who ever seem to show up are social workers taking notes, grandparents, and an occasional foster parent.

The only children who ever seem to be present are the ones old enough to have their own lawyers. When they show up, usually, it's to try to persuade Askew to send them home. The trouble is, what's keeping them out of their homes is hardly the kind of problem that's best dealt with by judges and attorneys.

This morning, Askew has heard matters concerning a violent alcoholic who duct-taped his kids to chairs, a girl threatening suicide because she can't go home to her abusive parents, and a two-year-old who has already lived in a succession of foster homes and shows signs of serious psychological problems with human bonding. He has issued orders pertaining to two different newborns that tested positive for methamphetamine at delivery. Virtually all of the cases involve addiction, most often to meth. Someone says the word "relapse" every seven or eight minutes.

When most defendants find themselves in a courtroom, a crime has been committed or an injury alleged, and there is a specific set of facts for the court to examine en route to assigning blame and levying consequences. Askew's courtroom is different. Families end up here for the more nebulous reason that someone has decided their children may need the government's protection or services. Much of what the judge does is try to divine the future. He has no magic formula for erasing the despondency, dysfunction, and poverty submerged beneath the facts of each case.

The red tape is endless. Today there is the father who is no longer eligible for county-paid chemical dependency services because he complied with his social worker's orders to find employment, which landed him in a low-wage warehouse job that doesn't include health insurance. The mother who lost her treatment bed when she was automatically kicked off the Medical Assistance rolls after her kids went into foster care.

When kids are removed from their parents' home, the law favors placing them with relatives where possible—though attorneys for those families say the process is making that harder these days. Today they've complained to Askew about pedantic county social workers who rejected crucial forms on the grounds they were faxed in, or recommended the placement of kids with strangers because the relative who wants to care for them has a pet snake or, in one instance, a family room in which "the ceiling wasn't fireproofed."

Askew's day is typically packed with unsatisfactory decisions—stopgap rulings, orders he knows will go unheeded, plan Cs that are likely to work as poorly as plans A and B. King Solomon only had to threaten to cleave a baby in half to find out who its rightful parent was. If Askew tried that, some of these people would probably let him hack away. Often as not, the parties in Askew's courtroom seem distressed, distracted, or otherwise absorbed in some private hell. Many don't seem to grasp, or else to care about, matters as abstract as their children's future.

The scenes playing out in Anoka County are part and parcel of a larger crisis in the state's child protection system. Relative to its fairly meager poverty rate, Minnesota removes more children from their homes per capita than any other state in the country. (With no adjustment for poverty rates, which are the single largest predictor of child removals, Minnesota still ranks eighth in the country, taking away parental custody of nearly twice as many children as the national average.) And the number never reunited with their parents has ballooned.

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