A bill aimed at thwarting the hideous practice of female genital mutilation sailed through the House in May, but stalled in the Senate. That gave lawmakers a chance to take a step back and consider the bill’s thornier implementation implications.
Members of the joint House-Senate Legislative Task Force on Child Protection heard testimony about the bill from both a county attorney and a county human services director last Tuesday. Neither took a stand for or against House File 2621, but both made it clear that the bill could strain already taxed child-protection and foster-care systems.
“We don’t have enough foster homes the way it is,” said Nicollet County Attorney Michelle Zehnder Fischer, a member of Gov. Mark Dayton’s Task Force on the Protection of Children.
“We certainly don’t have enough culturally and religiously appropriate foster homes, if we’re going to start pulling girls out of their homes,” Fischer added. “Those are the real implications of this.”
The bill was authored by Rep. Mary Franson, R-Alexandria, with the support of a few Somali women who described for members of several legislative committee hearings their own harrowing experiences with sexual mutilation.
Fadumo Abdinur told lawmakers in May that the procedure left her lifelong complications, including dangerous infections during pregnancies. Farhio Khalif described how community elders in Somalia cut her when she was just 8 years old. To prevent her from running away, she said, they tied her down by her hands and feet.
Both women said they hoped the bill would pass largely to send a signal to new immigrant mothers that the practice is neither legal nor tolerated in the United States.
If the bill passes next year, parents who put their daughters through the procedure could face felony convictions with prison terms up to 20 years. Peace officers could be permitted to remove a child from parents’ care if they find evidence the child was sexually mutilated, and that could cost parents custody of their children.
Ben Johnson, a House legislative research analyst, said Tuesday that while Minnesota has a strong preference generally toward family reunification in child-protection cases, the bill would place female genital mutilation on a short list of offenses for which counties are excused from making “reasonable efforts at reunification.”
The bill passed the House 124-4 on May 15. Among those voting yes was Ilhan Omar, DFL-Minneapolis, the nation’s first Somali-American legislator. However, it then ran into opposition from some immigrant and refugee community groups and stalled in the Senate without coming to a floor vote.
Rep. Dave Pinto, DFL-St. Paul, a Ramsey County prosecutor, asked Fischer Tuesday if she worries about the law’s impact on the state’s child protection system. “I think many of us can see the advantages of this legislation, this being just a horrific procedure,” Pinto said. “I just want to make sure we are going in with eyes open.”
One concern, Fischer said, is that the bill would add genital mutilation to the list of crimes that can constitute “egregious harm,” which means a violation could lead to termination of parental rights.
Generally when parental rights are terminated, she said, all children in a family are removed under the presumption that all face harm. It’s an open question whether that would be true in this case, she said.
“If have you have one girl and three boys, the risk of harm presumably to those three boys from this particular act doesn’t exist,” she said. “And so then what do we do with the three boys that are in the home? And how do we address those three children after removing the little girl?”
In a brief interview after the hearing, Fischer said she hopes lawmakers consider how the law’s current wording could impose barriers on county attorneys and child-protection agencies who must work with Somalis or other immigrant communities in which the practice is accepted.
Jodi Wentland, Hennepin County’s new director of Human Services, agreed that the law could burden the child protection system.
“It could result in numerous placements when there is limited ability to place a child in a home that is able to meet their cultural needs,” she said. “Simply put, we are likely to further traumatize these girls when we remove them from their homes.”
Wentland then made a pitch for state investment in what she called “a child well-being approach” to child protection that de-emphasizes punitive action in favor of prevention and early intervention.
As Wentland described it, the approach would represent a major reform to the state’s child-protection system by stirring in stable housing programs, child care, employment assistance and education. It would, she said, require significant state investment.
‘Do it right’
Some hint of where the bill might run into future opposition emerged Tuesday’s hearing when Rep. Linda Slocum, DFL-Richfield, spoke.
While condemning female mutilation, Slocum said it is equally repulsive when performed on young males in the form of circumcision — a Western cultural norm that she described as “kind of a white-man thing.”
“Is this a law that is race-based?” Slocum pointedly asked. “I think we need to think about that.”
Sen. Michelle Fischbach, R- Paynesville, the commission’s co-chair, discouraged that line of inquiry as complicating the discussion. She said she put the bill on the agenda to explore “the mechanics” of its implementation before it moves forward.
“I want to understand how it affects child support and protection mechanisms that we have in place,” Fischbach said. “Are there enough foster homes? If we put this in place, where are we putting the kids?”
Rep. Ron Kresha, R-Little Falls, the commission’s other co-chair, acknowledged that as the bill moves ahead, lawmakers must address “the intricacies of this as it approaches certain populations and so forth.”
However, he said he supports the bill and even signaled support for at least some of the financial resources Wentland requested.
“We have got to change people’s minds and attitudes across the board — that is how I see this,” Kresha said. “I have gone back and forth and had many sleepless nights over this — it’s that important.”
Added Kresha: “We have to do it. And we have to do it right.”
New child-protection legislation
At the Legislative Task Force on Child Protection hearing Tuesday, Oct. 3, Senate counsel outlined 2017 appropriations and statutory changes affecting child protection and welfare. What follows is an edited summary of their presentation.
The law requires the responsible social services agency to notify children aged 10 when am emergency removal petition is pending or if the child is under the guardianship of the Human Services commissioner. If a child is unrepresented in a court proceeding, the court must inform the child of their right and ask whether the child wants counsel. (Minnesota Statutes Chapter 60 Section 4.)
Child protection, foster care
The Legislature appropriated $19 million for 2018-19 to fund additional staff for improve child-safety assessments, foster care, and permanency-practice standards. The funding increases Human Service’s capacity to monitor local child-safety assessment practices, and provides oversight to local county and tribal agencies to improve child-welfare system outcomes. The money also funds a pilot project for homeless, older minor youths.
A new law requires the Human Services commissioner to design and implement a program aimed at reducing out-of-home placements or placement changes for children and youth in foster care while also improving affected families’ stability. Federal adoption incentive funds can be used for the new services. (Minnesota Statutes Chapter 6, Article 7.)
Statutes governing welfare, education and court services data were amended to facilitate inter-system data sharing for coordination of children and family services. The changes allow county social service workers to share specific data with schools and establishes a parental-consent process before educational data is released to counties and county welfare systems. (Minnesota Statues Chapter 6, Article 7.)
The Legislature appropriated $152,000 to fully implement the federal Justice for Victims of Trafficking Act of 2015; the money will support modifications to Minnesota’s Child Abuse Prevention and Treatment Act (CAPTA), so it complies with federal law. The Legislature also provided $400,000 for emergency shelter and transitional and long-term housing beds for sexually exploited youth and an additional $100,000 to fund outreach to sexually exploited and at-risk youths, ages 24 and younger, who are eligible for shelter, beds and services.
A new law makes the Human Services Department responsible for assessing or investigating reports of alleged maltreatment in juvenile correctional facilities, rather than putting that burden on local welfare agencies in the counties where correctional facilities are located. (Chapter 6, Article 9)
White Earth child protection
The Legislature appropriated $500,000 per year for a grant aimed at delivering child-welfare services to the White Earth Nation of Ojibwe. The money covers additional actual costs that the tribe incurs for delivering child protective services to eligible children and families.
Source: Senate Counsel, Research and Fiscal Analysis