Dwight Mitchell, a management consultant whose family once lived in Apple Valley, saw his role as father abruptly shift to a desperate mission to get his children back when child protective services took custody following a 2014 incident. The subsequent ordeal convinced him to file a lawsuit, and that drew calls for help from other parents in similar straits.
Mitchell’s encounter with the state came about when a family babysitter reported to officials that Mitchell had spanked his 11-year-old son. The babysitter reported the incident to Dakota County MN child protection workers who, Mitchell’s suit alleges, removed his children from the family home. Mitchell said he intended for the spanking to give his son guidance for stealing, disobeying his parents and failing to do assigned school work. He called it an act of love.
“It was every parent’s nightmare,” he was quoted in a newspaper interview a year ago. “My children were legally kidnapped for a bottom spanking that was done out of love, because I want my children to grow up to be hardworking members of society.” He called it “the most traumatic experience of my life…over ordinary discipline.”
His middle son, whom he had spanked, was kept in state custody for nearly two years and the father was denied all contact with the boy over the entire period. Mitchell was found to be a fit father after interviews with two state case reviewers, leading Mitchell to expect a quick return of his children. That didn’t happen, and he was unable to get information on them while they were in foster care. “Child Protective Services were brazenly arrogant until the end.”
Mitchell suits contends that child protective services at both state and county levels have unbounded authority to claim abuse or neglect and remove children from family homes under vague and arbitrary circumstances. Especially in question is parental corporal punishment of a child – spanking or paddling – which Minnesota law allows, he said. The lawsuit contends that state statutes do not clearly define when removal of a child is justified, and the laws grant social workers broad powers to remove and assign custody outside the home, with no accountability to the parents.
In 2017, Mitchell founded a non-profit parents organization, Stop CPS From Legally Kidnapping Children, described on the website as “an advocacy and social rights group to stop Child Protective Services from overreaching, taking peoples’ children with no showing of harm.” The formal legal name is Family Preservation Foundation, initiated as a not-for-profit, 501(c)(3) to serve as a public interest legal aid organization dedicated to rescuing children from unwarranted forced parental separation, according to website content.
“People assume that CPS interventions are only in extreme cases of abuse or neglect, but this is far from the case. In fact, nationally, only 12% percent of the cases are for physical abuse and 4% for sexual abuse. The remaining 84% of the cases are purely social worker discretion based upon allegations with no evidence. The law does not restrict child removals to extreme cases of abuse or neglect,” according to content on the Stop CPS from Legally Kidnapping Children website.
Compounding the problem, Mitchell says the child protective agencies have economic incentive to retain children in the system.
By mid-2018, the organization he founded had attracted 250 members. Media coverage of the class action lawsuit Mitchell filed drew other affected families and the roster mushroomed to 5,600 current members, mostly in Minnesota. “You can’t tell me that something isn’t wrong with the (child protective) system when month-over-month growth is exponential,” Mitchell said.
“Our biggest hurdle is that most people aren’t aware of our organization.” He intends to grow membership by sending foundation volunteers to family court to meet with people engaged in actions and offer them legal assistance and tips. Unclear laws permit irregular procedures, allowing social workers to take advantage of families’ lack of understanding of the process.
Parents are bewildered when social workers take their children, and unaware of steps they can take to challenge the process and unknowing about potential pitfalls. For example, Minnesota law requires a trial to show cause to put a child in foster care within 60 days of removing them from their family home.
Acting in goodwillgood will, parents often agree to cooperate with social workers; the parents unwittingly are giving permission for extensions of the 60-day rule and relaxing other standards that can delay returning children home, he said. Compounding the situation, industry data is raw, assimilated directly from social workers in the field, rather than from formal court findings.
In the past, child protection agencies have had significant monetary incentive to retain children in foster care for as long as possible, billing Title IV-E: Federal Payments for Foster Care and Adoption Assistance of the Social Security Act, according to Mitchell. The newly adopted Family First Act attempts to limit entitlements under the former billing system, and keep families in crisis together to reduce the incidence of foster care cases. He’s going to observe with skepticism how effectively the new act minimizes the influence of money in the decision process.
“Thinking I’m going to get my children back quickly, I did everything that CPS asked of me, although CPS never provided me with a safety plan, a case plan, or a unification plan as required under Minnesota state statutes.”
“After five months, CPS returned my six-year-old and my 15-year-old to me, but refused to return my 11-year-old son.” The son whom he had punished had been outgoing before being placed in the foster care system, but returned introverted and often uncommunicative, Mitchell said. “
Following the state’s finding that Mitchell is a fit parent, two judges had ordered CPS to return his son, but CPS pushed back and retained the child for an additional 17 months. ”They knew I was a fit parent and the household was safe and returned two of my children” yet refused to return his son.
Mitchell said he was surprised to learn how many other families are affected by child seizures. His research revealed that over 453,000 children annually are moved out of homes across the country.
“Minnesota doesn’t have (prior due process requiring a hearing and probable cause before a judge, no warrants) … but children are taken rather, “by social worker determination.” Also, statistics on removal of children are reported by social workers based on the earliest point of contact, before any official actions occur in court or other with other officials. Outcomes and ultimate court findings are not reflected in the data.
Now, five years after the children were removed from his home, Mitchell says, “It’s never gone – will never be gone. Imagine someone taking your kid…and alienating your kid against you. Kids who have been in foster care are never the same.”
“Our No. 1 priority is to keep children out of the failing foster care system and with their families whenever possible.”
A Minnesota civil lawsuit seeking to limit the power of state agencies from arbitrarily removing a child from their family will be heard by the 8th District Appellate Court in Missouri, according to the father brought the suit.