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.

In 2001, Minnesota enacted a law designed to reduce the length of time that kids who land in the system have to spend in legal limbo, buffeted by the periodic and wrenching upheaval of moving from one home to another without any assurance as to when, or if, they might return home. The new rules essentially require courts to hurry up and determine—within 6 months or 12, depending mainly on the child's age—whether children should be taken from a home permanently.

The phase-in of this new, more aggressive child protection timeline has coincided with the arrival of methamphetamine in rural and suburban Minnesota, which in turn has sparked an unprecedented increase in the number of child protection cases. Court officials say fully half the cases they see in Anoka now involve meth—and add that there are no effective treatment programs in Minnesota where caseworkers can send users. Even if everyone who needed treatment got it, Askew and the other judges assigned to Anoka's child protection cases know from hard experience that six months isn't enough time to assess whether an addicted parent is getting any sort of toehold on sobriety.

To date there has been no official evaluation of the effect of the new law, but statistics provided by state court analysts show that the number of cases where parental rights are terminated is rising. In Anoka, the number of cases has tripled since the new timeline was adopted; the number of children affected has risen even higher. In the vast majority of Anoka County cases involving meth, children now lose their parents for good.

Right before lunch, Askew discovers that a preteen placed in a so-called professional foster home ended up a truant because her guardians wouldn't drive her to her home school. Instead, sheriff's deputies had been driving her to the school in the lockup for juvenile delinquents. He asks the social worker to please try to work out something less punitive, but as the parties to the case file out, it's wholly unclear whether the judge has the power to change anything.

"We're doing social engineering with limited information and resources," he complains to no one in particular. "And we're doing it with parents who aren't functioning very well."

Part two:

The poster child

The case of Tess Madsen, age 10, is a one-stop summary of the reasons officials pushed a shorter timeline in child protection inquiries. (All the names of families brought before the court in this story have been changed to safeguard the privacy of the children in the proceedings.) She came to authorities' attention one night last February when a stranger found her, cold and wet, on a street corner in Ramsey. The man called police. Tess explained to the cops that her dad kicked her and her five brothers and sisters, ages 7 to 16, out of the house, at one point threatening to "send us away to live with the Sambos." Official reports describe Jim Madsen as unconcerned at his daughter's coming home later in a squad car. Safety is the cops' problem, he scoffed.

At the Madsen home two weeks later, investigators found no food. A teenager who should have been in school was doing housework. She insisted that nothing was wrong, that the other kids were defiant brats. As it turned out, she was facing abuse charges of her own.

The younger kids told investigators that their dad smokes pot for his eyesight and drinks beer to quell his temper, and that he punished them "for asking for pudding" by duct-taping them to chairs. That was just the one time though, they volunteered. Usually he beat them with a belt. Once, when the belt he used began to fray, their mother Kathi had bought him a new one.

Investigators also learned that the Madsens had been the subject of 14 prior child protection complaints in Hennepin County, where a few months earlier they lost their parental rights to a seventh child. Since Tess was found huddled on the roadside, the other six kids have been in Anoka County's custody for eight months, scattered across several foster homes. One has been hospitalized for threatening suicide; others have become the subjects of delinquency proceedings.

The Madsens are almost certainly headed for a trial to take away their kids—in court shorthand, a TPR (Termination of Parental Rights). The TPR may ensure the children's safety from their parents, but otherwise it guarantees very little. Unless a relative with a better track record steps forward, it's likely that no one will want to adopt all six siblings. Older kids are particularly hard to place, as are younger kids with the kind of psychological problems that are typical of situations like theirs. It's a good bet that some, if not all, of them will wind up in a series of foster homes.

In 1997, Congress passed the Adoption and Safe Families Act with families like this one in mind. The law was intended to reduce the number of cases that drag on for years as parents blow chance after chance and their children languish in foster care. The law requires states to consider terminating parental rights when children have been in foster care for 15 of the previous 22 months. It also created financial incentives for states and counties to find adoptive homes for those children: Each time an adoption is finalized, the federal government pays the state a fee pegged to the needs and characteristics of the child in question.

Every state had to change its guidelines to comply with the new federal rules, but Minnesota went furthest of all. The decision whether to pursue a TPR now must be made within 12 months of the time a child over the age of 8 is first removed from the home. For younger children, the decision must be made in six months. Exceptions theoretically can be made, but that rarely happens.

Along with the new timeline, in 2000, Minnesota's state court system launched a campaign to address many of the system's long-standing problems. The goal of the Children's Justice Initiative is for everyone involved to see each case "through the eyes of the child." Ideally, this means each family should see the same judge every time they go to court, each child should be represented by one of the advocates known as guardians ad litem, each guardian should be a skilled professional, and postponements and other bureaucratic snafus should be avoided. The results so far have been mixed. In Anoka, the number of cases assigned to a single judge is rising, as is the number of children represented by guardians and attorneys. Fewer kids are in temporary out-of-home placements for more than a year.

But when it comes to dealing with the problems that brought each family into court, the picture isn't as rosy. Services are expensive, and a disproportionate number of people caught up in child protection proceedings are poor. State funding hasn't kept pace with the need. And until recently, child protection proceedings were shielded from public view—safeguarding the privacy of children, but at the same time rendering their troubles publicly invisible, a political liability to no one.

The Madsens, for their part, are no longer making even casual efforts to convince Judge Askew that they want to make a home for their children. But neither are they talking about voluntarily relinquishing their parental rights. The guardian ad litem for the Madsen children reminds Askew that this 15th complaint against the parents is dragging on. She also can't resist complaining that in the hall, Jim Madsen told her to "fuck off and get away from us."

Kathi Madsen has been fidgeting all along, but at this she howls. "Stop it," her lawyer hisses, grabbing her arm. "Just stop it."

The rest of their time before the judge is spent deciding when the parties should come back for a pretrial hearing. The requisite reports have been slow to trickle in. In particular, there's a problem with one more psychological exam someone requested on Jim Madsen, whose insurance company will pay only for an evaluation the county deems substandard. Unsnarling this may take another 90 days.

"Hennepin County kicked the can down the road," Askew complains. "There is some very serious long-term damage being done here."

Part three:

You can't get there from here

Cn September, Terri Massing dropped a dirty UA, testing positive for meth in one of her periodic court-ordered urine samples. She admitted she'd relapsed, and agreed when the social worker in charge of her case asked her to get a chemical dependency assessment and consider treatment. At the time of the urinalysis, she was on Medical Assistance. But when she went for her CD assessment, someone realized her ex had assumed custody of their four kids, which meant that she was no longer eligible for state health care.

Because the assessment was court-ordered, the county was then supposed to provide it, but while Massing was waiting for her appointment to be set, the Medical Assistance bureaucracy reversed itself and said it would pay, based on her lack of income. She went back on state health care rolls, causing the county to call off its assessment—at which point Medical Assistance balked again, on the grounds that she had already had an assessment in the past, back when her child protection case was first opened.

Massing is hysterical. She has less than six months to make enough progress to convince the court to give her back her kids, and the paper shufflers have already eaten weeks of it. She asks Askew to let her come back to court in a month, so she can show she's trying to comply with her case plan. The social worker, who is new, is unsure whether he has all of the reports he needs to make a recommendation. He also expresses doubt that the mother can show progress in only 30 days. He wants to set the next court date 90 days out.

Askew realizes it's unfashionable to spend tax dollars on people who brought problems on themselves, he tells the eight grownups seated around a table below him, but he wants the case to move faster. He wants Terri Massing in treatment while she's still remorseful. "This might actually be a case where the county has to pay with local property taxes," he suggests, setting the case for review in 60 days.

The question of who's going to pay for tests, assessments, or treatments comes up in virtually every case, every day that court is in session. Anoka County looks first to a family's private insurance. This frequently means delay in obtaining a chemical dependency assessment, since a given insurer may not agree to pay for the particular treatment program at hand. If a parent has no insurance and very little income, the county may pay, but the approval process engenders more delays. After all these hurdles are cleared, there are very often waiting lists at treatment facilities.

The case after the Massings involves a toddler and a newborn, but only the mother, June Swanson, is here. The social worker is upset because when the baby was born a couple of weeks ago, the hospital tested the infant for meth, but not Swanson. She wants the mother's urine tested today, even though the baby tested negative at birth and Swanson says she's been clean for a year. Askew asks whether this is excessive and the social worker starts to argue, but Swanson butts in. She's clean, she'll submit to the test.

Swanson does have a request, though. She and her husband had been going to counseling until a few weeks ago, when the county, wrongly assuming insurance would pick up the tab, let the contract with their therapist lapse. Askew turns to the social worker and launches into another lecture. Marriage counseling is cheap, he says, considering the stakes and considering everything else the county is spending on these cases. It's worth every penny if it keeps the family together, and the father supporting Mom and the kids.

Askew turns his attention to Swanson's husband's absence. Bill Watson's attorney says he has been working 55 hours a week trying to get back on track and make up for income the family lost while his wife was on maternity leave. Plus, he doesn't have the kind of job where his boss would understand if he said he had to duck out for a child protection hearing.

More worrisome to Askew, Watson hasn't shown up for his urinalyses. He had a self-reported relapse in July. In August, the county demanded that he submit to a hair follicle test. He did, but there wasn't enough tissue on the end of the hair plucked by the lab for an accurate test. Twice, Askew warns Swanson that if Watson's using and she's tolerating it, she's likely to pick up again herself.

Part four:

Meth: "It takes a good year to come back to some kind of balance."

There are many reasons why a drug test might be ordered in a hospital's delivery room. A mother may not have had any prenatal care, raising fears that she was hiding something from medical professionals. Labor may have been far too short. The file opened a week after Jenny Young's birth doesn't say why staff at Mercy Hospital decided to test the baby girl's first bowel movement for drugs, but it's not hard to guess. When Jenny was born, her Apgar score—which takes into account an infant's breathing, skin tone, muscle tone, and so forth—was only 4. A score of 7 to 10 is considered normal.

The drug test came back positive for methamphetamine, and baby Jenny was placed on a police hold in the hospital nursery, where she continued to have breathing problems. Within days she developed pneumonia. Family members wanted to take her home, but when she was released from the hospital, it was to a foster home arranged by Social Services.

The Youngs' attorneys first ask Judge Askew to resolve a holdup in placing the infant with relatives. "I'm concerned that again, relative placement is available and yet we've had no movement on it," the father's attorney complains. "In my experience, these relative placements used to get done in a week or 10 days, two weeks at most. And now today I have two I can't get done."

The bottleneck is occurring thanks to a change in county policy. In the absence of any conspicuous red flags in the file, county workers used to grant relatives emergency foster care licenses before doing extensive background exams. If they later found a felony conviction or other problem, they would remove the kids. Now they're doing laborious investigations as a first resort, and the state Bureau of Criminal Apprehension has been increasingly slow to process their requests for criminal history database checks. "The Legislature has done a better job creating new offense categories than they have funding the BCA to do what it's supposed to be doing," Askew grumbles when he's informed of the change.

Compared with many of the families he sees, this one looks sympathetic. Kelly Young is in treatment, and her husband, Jed, is doing his best to get there. His case plan required him to get straight and get a job. He found work right away, but that seems to have ruined his chances of getting treatment: As long as he was unemployed, he was eligible for a county-paid chemical dependency assessment. Now he isn't anymore. But his job offers no insurance benefits, and he has yet to receive his first paycheck. If he can't have the assessment, he can't get into treatment, let alone figure out how to pay for it—all of which leaves him out of compliance with his case plan.

Askew turns to the social worker and says he understands the county has policies, but he wants them to make the resources available to start treating the father. "Unless you've decided this family is beyond redemption," he says, "because [meanwhile] bonding is going to take place in the foster family. You know that as well as I do."

Anoka is the first county in the metro area to experience a meth-related child protection crisis. Court administrators do not track the number of cases involving methamphetamine statewide, but by Anoka's calculations, 85 percent of all new cases there involve substance abuse, and 50 percent are directly related to meth. In 85 percent of the meth cases, children end up placed permanently with other caretakers.

The issue is hard to quantify. In Anoka County, child protection matters make up 30 percent of the juvenile division's caseload, but consume half its resources and time. Statewide, the number of child protection cases has risen by more than 36 percent in the last five years. In Anoka, however, the number has remained relatively static even though judges, attorneys, and guardians say things have become much worse in the last three years. They say the reason for the discrepancy between the statistics and their caseloads may be the fact that Anoka no longer takes less serious cases to court, instead funneling some 30 percent to a separate monitoring program called Family Assessment.

The biggest problem in the meth cases that do make it to court is the lack of effective treatment facilities. The standard 28-day inpatient treatment regime that's customarily provided to people addicted to alcohol, heroin, cocaine, and prescription drugs seems to do little to break meth's hold. Most meth addicts need 9 to 18 months of treatment, judges and attorneys say, and even then relapses are to be expected in some 96 percent of cases.

Addicts generally spend the first six weeks of treatment catching up on lost sleep, says Bill Ward, chief public defender for Minnesota's 10th Judicial District, which includes Anoka. They typically require three months of sobriety before they can begin to benefit from treatment or grasp the consequences of a child protection proceeding. More often than not, the only way they will stay clean that long is if they are in lockup.

Often when an attorney from Ward's office first encounters a meth addict, the person seems more mentally ill than anything. It's a matter of "the paranoia, the psychosis, the lack of any ability to connect the conversation with reality, or with themselves," Ward says. "Telling parents, 'You have to get your act together' doesn't work. They're still going to use. Even if people are in treatment, it takes six to nine months before you can talk to them about what they have to do to have a relationship with their children."

In Minnesota, that means there's a good chance a parent becomes capable of making real progress just as they butt up against the deadline for losing their kids permanently. The court can grant extensions when there's decent progress being made, but conversely, relapses can chew up whatever time a family may have left.

Popular stereotypes about the drug notwithstanding, there are places where meth is being dealt with effectively. California and other West Coast states have been dealing with meth for years, and have developed treatment programs that are more effective than anything available locally. Ninety-day and 16-week-long treatment programs are getting good results, often even on an outpatient basis.

Meth users initially have very short attention spans, according to Robin Tomlinson, coordinator for patient services at the San Francisco area-based rehab center El Centro de Libertad. Consequently, many West Coast treatment centers employ short, 45-minute counseling sessions. "The first 90 days are just stabilizing, just learning how not to use," she says. "People experience a tiredness for at least a month. I would say it takes a good year just to come back to some kind of balance."

Recognizing that this is an eternity for young children, El Centro incorporates addicts' families into the process, bringing children in for counseling sessions twice a month. Other inpatient treatment centers house parents and children together.

Anoka County recently submitted a grant application to the state to start a meth-specific treatment program for mothers. And the Minnesota Legislature just approved $1.5 million in grant money for counties to use for meth-specific treatment in 2006 and 2007. It's a start, but barely, according to those who work in the system. "We'll be lucky when they're all open if they treat a couple of dozen clients," says Dan Sadowski, head of the public defender's juvenile division for the 10th Judicial District, which includes Anoka as well as a number of other counties hit hard by meth. "We have hundreds."

In the meantime, Anoka County is running a pilot program in which parents receive intensive supervision and appear in court every two weeks. The experiment is getting good results, and county officials estimate that a higher number of kids end up going home. But there is only enough money to put a handful of families in it. If all cases involving meth were to be treated like the cases in the pilot program, Ward estimates, he'd need to quadruple the staff assigned to child protection matters.

Part five:

Capital punishment for parents

One night after midnight in the middle of a particularly worrisome case, Greg King gave up trying to sleep, went into his darkened office, and started on the next day's caseload. Some time later King, supervisor of the guardians ad litem for the 10th Judicial District, faxed a report to Dan Sadowski. A few minutes later, the fax whirred on again to receive an incoming message.

King glanced at the fax and dialed Sadowski. "What are you doing there?"

"I'm always here by now," Sadowski replied. "What are you doing there?"

Sadowski has worked for the 10th District public defender for 22 years, most recently as head of the juvenile division. Lanky and buzzing with kinetic energy, he survives on a regimen of Diet Coke, menthol cigarettes, and righteous indignation. During his tenure, the juvenile caseload has gotten heavier and more complicated. Unlike some public defenders, who respond to the burnout pervasive throughout the child protection system by transferring to criminal court, Sadowski has responded by starting his workday most mornings at 2:30.

Because child protection involves many different bureaucracies, each tracking different things, comprehensive statistics are hard to come by. According to state court statistics compiled by the Children's Justice Initiative, the number of reports of suspected child abuse has fallen slightly over the last three years to about 17,000, the number of children involved to just under 25,000. The number of cases that turn into court proceedings has increased 36 percent statewide, from some 3,400 in 2001 to almost 4,700 in 2004. During the same time, the number of TPR petitions increased from 877 to 1,028. More than 1,500 children lost their parents in 2004. State court administrators don't track how many cases involve meth, but court workers in Anoka and numerous out-state court systems attribute the increase in their caseload to the drug.

The state court statistics show the number of cases heard in Anoka County remaining relatively static around 180. Sadowski attributes the flat trend line to a 30 percent increase in the number of less serious complaints diverted into a county-run alternative program. But of the cases that do make it to court, Anoka County's numbers show terminations tripling between 2001 and 2004: In 2001 parental rights were terminated involuntarily in 18 cases; in 2003, there were almost 40; in 2004, 56. Add to that the cases in which parents agree to relinquish their rights—something parents often do either because they are granted visitation rights or to avoid the trauma of a trial—and the number rises above 150.

"To put that in perspective, when I first started here 20 years ago, we probably had three cases a year that went to trial for termination," says Sadowski. "Termination of parental rights is tantamount to capital punishment for [parents]."

State court statisticians have recorded a lower increase, to 114 cases involving 185 children, but caution that they are in the process of standardizing the data they collect. In any case, Judy Nord, administrator of the Children's Justice Initiative, admits that for meth addicts, the numbers suggest that the six-month assessment window isn't long enough. "We've got these permanency timelines for the kids. It's the permanency clock versus the recovery clock: This is where judges are up against the wall," she says. "Because this is the child protection system, not the parent protection system, we need to come up with a way to view the process through the eyes of the child."

Nord notes that there are intermediate steps available to judges who feel that an individual stands a good chance of being able to parent their child. "The judge looks at two things: Is the parent working their case plan and are they making progress? Is the parent having regular contact with their child? Those two things are good predictors. And if the answer is yes, the judge can continue the case for another six months. If not, the judge can direct the county to prepare a permanency petition." Such extensions are seldom sought, however. (When the issue came up during a hearing in Anoka recently, the prosecutor said that right now exceptions are made in only about 11 percent of Anoka County cases.)

Part six:

Adoption bites

Cassie Englund's face isn't visible in the picture of her being projected in Judge Jenny Walker Jasper's courtroom. Her hand, tiny and stubby-fingered, is held out in front of a lemon-colored seersucker dress embroidered with pink and orange bugs and flowers. To the right of the screen, a doctor is using a pointer to gesture at puncture wounds on the girl's thumb, noting the horseshoe pattern of the marks and how much pressure would have been needed to break the girl's skin. In his opinion, Cassie has been bitten by an adult, and hard.

The next slide reveals a pretty face framed by a blond pageboy haircut. Cassie's grinning at the camera, her eyes oddly flat and focused a couple of degrees off center. A woman not visible in the frame is holding an L-shaped ruler alongside Cassie's elbow, which is grotesquely swollen and yellow. In the next shot, the woman holds the ruler up to a bruised buttock that's smaller than her impeccably manicured hand.

The doctor's methodical narration describes each injury in turn, ending on one last photo documenting another bite on her other hand. In addition to the visible wounds, the girl has a fractured occipital bone, the thick hump at the back of her skull. It's a hard bone to break, the doctor reports. It couldn't have fractured during a fall, but might have broken when the child's head collided with a wall.

She also received an "informal diagnosis" of reactive attachment disorder, a psychological syndrome resulting from negative interactions with caregivers, or from being cared for by a series of people.

Cassie is three years old, and this is the second time she has been the subject of a child protection proceeding. The first time, when she was 18 months old, is referred to only obliquely here; her birth mother lost her after an investigation that turned up several other head injuries. It's unclear how many foster families have cared for her since, but eventually she went to live with the couple on trial here.

Fran and Terence Dahlstrom were in the process of adopting Cassie, but changed their minds last spring. They say they couldn't get help for her psychological problems, and they were worried about the effect the situation was having on their biological sons, ages five and six. They told Cassie that someday soon the social workers would be coming to get her, but retained custody. Fran wanted to help pick the next family, because, she tells Judge Walker Jasper, she "loved Cassie as if she were my own."

On a Friday night, three months after deciding not to adopt Cassie, Fran Dahlstrom took her to stay overnight at the home of a friend of Cassie's birth mother's. The woman noticed the girl's swollen, bruised arms and planned to ask the foster mom about them when she picked the girl up Saturday night. Dahlstrom didn't show until Sunday; the friend changed her mind and contacted child protection workers instead. When investigators got to the Dahlstrom house on Monday, they found the injuries, plus fresh bite marks. An x-ray turned up an unhealed skull fracture.

Dahlstrom first testified that Cassie bit herself, but then claimed the county-supplied psychologist told Dahlstrom to do it. "It was part of the therapy," she insisted. "She bit me and one of the things I learned is when she bites to give a little snip so she would learn."

Up until this point, the attorneys and other court workers had all been listening with their heads down, taking notes or scanning reports. At Dahlstrom's remark, every head in the courtroom jerks up and swivels toward the witness stand.

"So it is your testimony that [the psychologist] told you to bite Cassie?" the prosecutor asks. Yes, Dahlstrom replies. The prosecutor pauses, and then asks again. Yes, Dahlstrom repeats, the psychologist recommended it in the hope that things might go better, and Dahlstrom would reconsider the adoption.

The court proceeding includes no discussion of who signed off on the Dahlstroms as good prospects to adopt Cassie, or what sort of pre-adoption investigation was conducted. There is no mention of why the Dahlstroms would go to trial over a child they wanted to give back, or of where the girl is now and how she's doing.

Statewide statistics on the number of kids whose parents lose their rights who are then adopted are not available. Minnesota does collect the number of children adopted overall, but makes no distinction between overseas adoptions, private adoptions, and adoptions that result from child protection hearings. In 2004, Anoka County finalized adoptions on 31 children involved in child protection proceedings, according to a county spokesperson. To date in 2005, 49 children have been adopted out, and 53 are in pre-placement adoptive homes. The number is rising, but it's not keeping pace with the number who have been removed from homes by TPR.

The same federal law that established new timelines also created incentives to find permanent homes for children in the system, with a goal of doubling the number of adoptions by 2002. To this end, the federal government began paying states bonuses for each adoption finalized. The formula for calculating the payments is complicated, but in general, states receive $4,000 to $8,000 per adoption, depending on the needs of the child in question, provided that the number of children placed increases every year. The more children adopted, the higher the payment.

Payments are made, adds Richard Wexler, the executive director of the National Coalition for Child Protection Reform, whether the adoption works out or not—even if the new parents decide they've made a mistake and ask the county to resume custody of the child. No one anywhere tracks the number of "disrupted" adoptions, but Wexler's guess is that cases like Cassie Englund's aren't so rare.

"Permanency is a noble concept, but a TPR doesn't create permanency," says Wexler. "How many legal orphans have you created? Then what's the point? What have you done but create more problems?"

Wexler believes Minnesota's whole approach to child protection is wrong-headed, terming it a "take the children and run" mentality. He notes that there are states with far worse meth problems but lower rates of child removal—and, he claims, better results. Wexler cites the state of Alabama, which restructured its child protection system from the ground up after a 1991 class-action suit. The new system placed an emphasis on keeping families together. It expedited investigations and offered new services aimed at keeping as many kids as possible in their original homes. It hasn't been cheap: The state's child welfare spending has quadrupled, with the money paying for hundreds of new social workers and an array of supports ranging from child care funding to utility bill assistance. Alabama now takes away children at one of the lowest rates in the nation, according to Wexler, and repeat abuse of children left in their homes has fallen by 60 percent. Faced with its own child protection suit, Illinois later adopted much of the Alabama model.

In a study of state efforts to reform child protection systems published in 1999, the Urban Institute underscored Wexler's point. "Since families are generally in crisis when they are referred to child welfare, long waits for services decrease the chance that children will remain in their own homes," the think tank's researchers wrote. "Likewise, children may spend lengthy periods in 'temporary' placements if child welfare staff cannot access the services parents need to allow for reunification. In some states, caseworkers noted that many children placed in foster care could have remained in their parents' home had intensive family preservation services been available."

The answer to the increased number of terminations is supposed to be adoption. But Wexler, the Urban Institute, and a growing number of players in the local system are quick to point out that it's not the panacea that first the federal reform, and then Minnesota's, anticipated.

"This shift toward expedited placement raises two major concerns," the Urban Institute report warned. "First, parents who genuinely want and make efforts to get their children back may not be given the time they need. Second, early termination of parental rights, though motivated by the desire to find permanent homes for children, makes a child available for adoption but does not ensure that the child actually will be placed in a permanent setting. While efforts are underway to improve adoption practices in many states, the system already contains more children than it can place with adoptive parents each year."

This is true in Anoka County, guardian ad litem Greg King says. "Looking at the number of terminations that result from the timeline suggests that the timeline is too short," says King. "I don't know anybody in the system who thinks [six months are] enough."

Especially when there's no guarantee the alternative is an improvement, he says. "Often these kids don't have a good place to go."

Part seven:

Elizabeth and Anthony

The day is nearly over before Judge Askew hears anything resembling good news, and when a ray of optimism does appear, it's in the unlikely form of a teenage mother Askew previously placed in foster care because of problems relating to the girl's mother, who is mentally ill, and one of her brothers, who is abusive. The girl, Elizabeth, is wearing a gray T-shirt and a denim jacket. She turned 16 two weeks ago, but looks younger. Her hair is long and black, with bangs methodically curled and gelled into a face-framing semi-circle. She's sitting off to one side of Askew's bench in the area where the jury would sit if this were a regular courtroom.

Her baby, Anthony, isn't in the courtroom, but every other major player in her life is. Her lawyer is beside her, and her own foster mother sits in the gallery. Her parents are seated in front of her at a long table that runs parallel to Askew's bench, flanked by their attorneys, the court-appointed advocate for Elizabeth and her two brothers, a social worker, and a prosecutor. Off to the other side of the bench there's another lawyer, this one alongside Anthony's father, a skinny, slouch-shouldered goth with a wisp of a soul patch.

Since the last time Askew saw this family, Elizabeth's mother has been in and out of the hospital for depression. Elizabeth's oldest brother has gotten out of drug treatment, her father tells the judge, but hasn't managed to start aftercare. The social workers ask Judge Askew to order that the boys remain at home under protective supervision. They want Elizabeth to stay in the foster home where she and her baby are now living.

He orders long-term foster care for Elizabeth and sets a date to see the rest of the family again in the matter of her brothers, and then asks, perfunctorily, whether there's any further business.

There is. Anthony's guardian ad litem wants his case closed. Elizabeth and the baby's father—who was more a fleeting hook-up than a boyfriend—have worked out a visitation schedule and are making good choices together. The infant, the guardian says, is not in need of the county's protection.

For a moment, silence fills the courtroom. Suddenly, all of the adults start talking at once, praising the young mother. Smiling for the first time all day, Askew dismisses the baby's case. 

City Pages interns Darryl Thibodeaux and Eliot Brown contributed research for this story.

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.

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