Caught in the middle of Rice County child protection case

A heartbreaking case in Rice County is a compelling example of how a child can get caught in a tug-of-war in the child protection system in Minnesota.

Today, the Minnesota Court of Appeals ruled that a juvenile court and the county coerced parents of a child apparently in need of mental health treatment to admit that the need for intervention “are (is) due to deficiencies in their parenting.”

The story starts in November 2010 when the teenager ran away from home. Police brought him home but the police officer thought he’d be at risk there, so he was placed on a 72-hour emergency “hold.” Rice County, through a social worker, petitioned the juvenile court to determine that he was a child in need of protection or services (CHIPS).

At a hearing last winter, a juvenile court judge told the parents, “If you want to admit that your son has special care needs and you’re unable to provide those, that is not saying that you’re not a good parent. That’s saying (the child) has special care need and you’re not … the Mayo Clinic and you’re not a psychiatrist …”

“I am a damn good mother,” the woman insisted.

The parents admitted to the petition for services, believing their son would be placed at Gerard Academy, a residential treatment facility, at county expense. Instead, their child was put in foster care. The county, according to the Appeals Court, then claimed the placement “was necessary to keep him safe from his parents.”

The parents tried to withdraw their petition, but a court refused.

In a decision today, Appeals Court Judge Terri J. Stoneburner suggested the county was threatening to withhold any services unless the parents admitted to the petition, writing that “a threat to act in a manner that is not in a child’s best interests constitutes a manifest injustice” in ordering the decision overturned.

In a dissent, however, Appeals Court Judge Heidi S. Schellhas said the father of the child had been charged with physical abuse and that the parents had previously told Rice County “they did not want him back in their home.” And that the teen didn’t want to return home after running away because he was afraid of punishment.

She said the juvenile court was clear that the parents would not be able to dictate the services their child would get once they signed the paperwork, and that the parents were free to place their child in a treatment program of their choice at their own expense instead.

“The district court considered all of the parents’ argument in connection with their motions to withdraw their admission, and, in my opinion, properly rejected their arguments and denied their motions,” she said.

The case settles who won the right to withdraw the petition for services. What it doesn’t clear up is what happens to the teenager caught in the middle. I’ve placed calls to his public defender for clarification.

Find the entire opinion here.