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In the Hopper: Black families; data practices; no-knock warrants

Kevin Featherly//March 17, 2021//

In the Hopper: Black families; data practices; no-knock warrants

Kevin Featherly//March 17, 2021//

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House File 1151 (Chief author, Esther Agbaje, DFL-Minneapolis.) When child protection agents took Latasha Bacon’s 18-month-old daughter Layla away, they told her that the girl was going to a safe foster home.

Five months later, Layla was dead, murdered by the tattooed white man into whose custody she had been placed. Jason Robert Betlach, 33, admitted in court that he repeatedly shook the little girl in frustration because she wouldn’t stop crying.

At his sentencing in April 2020, Scott County District Court Judge Rex Stacy called Betlach “barely human,” citing video in evidence that showed him screaming “white power” at the child. Stacy sentenced Betlach to 30 years in prison.

Her mother thinks that had Agbaje’s bill, the African American Family Preservation Act, been in force at the time, Layla would still be alive.

The 17-page bill has numerous provisions. At its heart is a requirement that local social services agencies make “active efforts” to prevent out-of-home placements for African American children and reunify separated children with their families as soon as possible.

It requires local social services agencies to implement in-home family safety plans before an African American child is removed, except when allegations of sexual or physical abuse, or egregious harm are involved.

It prohibits courts from ordering out-of-home placements for African American children, absent clear and convincing evidence that their health or welfare is at stake. And it requires Black parents in emergency protection hearings to be represented by attorneys who meet the requirements for court-appointed counsel.

“These families find themselves at the mercy of a court system they know little about,” said Agbaje, herself an attorney. “They are at a structural disadvantage, because caseworkers may not be knowledgeable of cultural considerations when deciding on where an African American child is best placed.”

African American kids are removed from their homes at three times the rate of white kids, Agbaje said. “We see that 60% of cases involving African American children are assigned to the family-investigation path for discretionary reasons, compared to 39% for white children,” she said.

Bacon’s daughter was taken after she sought treatment at a hospital for the child’s broken leg, sustained while the girl was away on a visit to a relative. Though Bacon has only petty traffic violations on her record, county child protection was called and both of her children were turned over to Betlach and his wife. There one died and the other was left with permanent psychological scars, Bacon said.

“They said that she was in the safest place for her,” Bacon said. “And now she is dead.”

Rep. Tony Albright, R-Prior Lake, asked Agbaje if she had considered the bill’s constitutional implications, saying it creates “different standards for certain children and families.”

“When you look at various clauses of the constitution, there are racial disparities within our system in Minnesota,” Agbaje said. “This bill proposes to address those, to close those disparities.”

On March 12, her bill was laid over for possible inclusion in a House Human Services finance and policy omnibus. It had previously made a successful March 8 committee stop at House Public Safety.

Its companion, Senate File 843 from Sen. Bobby Joe Champion, DFL-Minneapolis, has not yet been taken up by the that body’s Civil Law and Data Practices committee. Champion carried similar, though much less comprehensive legislation in 2019, which made it all the way to the Senate floor and eventually into law.

House File 1404 (Jamie Becker-Finn, DFL-Roseville). The Data Practices Commission would become its old self again, if a bill from House Judiciary Chair Jamie Becker-Finn, DFL-Roseville, gets signed into law.

There is a fair chance of that, since it passed out of Becker-Finn’s Judiciary Committee on March 11 directly to the House floor and its companion, Senate File 1614, has already cleared the Senate Civil Law committee and also awaits a floor vote.

Well, make that semi-companion. A delete-everything amendment approved on March 11 transforms Becker-Finn’s bill into a mini-omnibus data practices bill. She calls it her “databus.”

“This databus is a great example of bipartisan, good policy work that we can get done together and hopefully move forward, despite whatever else goes on this session,” she told her committee members last week.

The Senate version, from Civil Law chair Sen. Andrew Mathews, R-Princeton, retains a more streamlined form. It simply restarts the Data Practices Commission (redubbed the Commission on Data Practices and Personal Data Privacy) as an independent legislative commission, to study the dense and thorny subject of digital privacy and open government records and recommend policy changes to the Legislature.

The commission was inadvertently allowed to sunset in after the 2019 legislative session. It was revived as a Legislative Coordinating Commission subcommittee for the remainder of the biennium, but never met in 2020. The Becker-Finn/Matthews legislation would resurrect it with its old independence, along with a new slate of members to serve until January 2023.

Becker-Finn’s bill adds some odds and ends from other bills not present in Mathews’ version.

Some of those include language that allows private education data about Native American students to be disclosed to tribal nations; new language on who may obtain certified birth or death records; a measure clarifying that complaints to the corrections ombudsman become public once cases are closed, and a new private classification for data that the DNR collects on minors.

Athena Hollins
Athena Hollins, DFL-St. Paul, presents a limited partial no-knock warrant ban to House Public Safety on March 12. (Image courtesy of House Public Information Services)

House File 1762 (Rep. Athena Hollins, DFL-St. Paul). This bill would regulate, though not eliminate, the use of no-knock warrants.

No-knock warrants became prominent headline news after a Black medical worker, Breonna Taylor, was shot and killed by Louisville police officers in March during a botched raid on her apartment.

Police maintained that they announced their presence, but Taylor’s boyfriend, who fired at the officers thinking they were home invaders, maintains that cops never said who they were. No one was ever charged in her death.

As originally written, the Hollins bill limited no-knock search warrants to suspected first-degree murders, hostage taking, kidnapping, terrorism and human trafficking. As amended, however, it bans no-knock warrants only in cases where the underlying offense is a suspected drug crime.

Even as amended, however, the bill faced stiff opposition from law enforcement.

St. Cloud Police Chief William Blair Anderson said that no-knock warrants are rarely used, especially in Greater Minnesota, but are important tools. They already are subject to comprehensive threat assessments and must get sign-off from a judge, he said.

Banning no-knock raids in drug cases would be a mistake, he said. “In my career, I don’t know anybody that has a kilo-and-a-half of a Schedule 1 controlled substance for personal use,” the chief said. “Additionally, wherever there are drugs there are guns.”

The Hollins bill also requires law enforcement agencies to issue quarterly reports on use of no-knock warrants to the Department of Public Safety. That information would be shared with the Legislature.

The bill, which has no Senate companion, passed the committee in a 10-7 straight party line vote, though Rep. Ginny Klevorn, DFL-Plymouth, abstained. It was sent from the committee directly to the House floor.

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