Initiative Helps Parents Accused of Child Abuse

Updated: 01/18/2013 7:44 AM KSTP.com By: Mark Saxenmeyer

When parents are accused of abusing or neglecting their kids, they often face an uphill battle with social workers and the courts. Even if the allegations are proven false, or the parents make every effort to change, the stigma is often hard to overcome.

But now, a new effort, and a notable Minnesotan, are coming to the aid of these parents.

Case in point: Larene Broome of Maplewood. Thirteen years ago, Larene stood accused of abuse after spanking her son with a belt. "A belt buckle is not what caused the bruises, just the belt itself," she explained. Her son was young. She was angry. At the time, Larene didn't think the spanking was that severe.

But hen her son went to school. Larene remembers, "He said, 'I don't want to go home, my mom you know, is not so nice to me'."

Larene's son was taken away, and an investigation launched.

Her explanation at the time?

"Parents tend to parent the way that they were parented," she said. When she was a child, she says she was primarily raised by an abusive step-grandparent.

 Enter former Minnesota Supreme Court Justice Helen Meyer.

Inside her office at William Mitchell College of Law, the school's Distinguished Jurist in Residence repeats the question she's been asked a lot lately: "Why would you want to represent parents who've allegedly done horrible things to their children?"

Justice Meyer, who retired from the bench last summer, has an easy answer: "I think if the bond can be repaired, it should," she said.

She believes when a child is removed from his or her home and placed with strangers, no matter what the circumstance, "that's also a traumatic event. And so you should do it very cautiously. And you should do it only when necessary."

But Justice Meyer isn't just talking about the problem. She's now donated $1 million to William Mitchell to create a child protection clinic. Law students are being trained to represent accused parents going through court proceedings in the child protection system. It can be difficult for parents to find lawyers with the skills and experience needed to adequately represent them.

"The clinic is really about helping parents be better, make the changes they have to make," she said. "And we're talking about some major change."

In Larene's case, although she got her son back, "Having to re-prove myself as a worthy parent, that was hard," she said.

"More often than not our clients are vilified," said Courtney Allensworth, a Mitchell law student who's working in the clinic. "But I think to say that somebody can't learn how to parent, or be an effective parent, sort of defeats the idea of the child protective system."

So far, Mitchell's law professors and students have represented 17 parents, and helped reunite about half of them with their kids.

According to Joanna Woolman, a professor who runs the clinic, "We provide a voice for those parents, to make sure that they have the help and support that they need to get through the process, to get their kids back."

Woolman says parents accused of abusing their children are often dealing with problems such as alcohol or drug dependency and mental health issues. Or, like Larene, they were abused themselves as children and are simply repeating the cycle of violence.

"They need to acknowledge that things aren't going well, that there have been mistakes made, and that they're trying to correct wrongs, to be a better parent. I think that's the goal," Woolman said.

Justice Meyer admits that in proven cases of serious abuse or neglect, reuniting children and parents wouldn't be prudent. "But, really, those are rare occasions," she said.

Larene now works with the clinic, mentoring other parents in trouble. She doesn't want others to go through what she went through, all those years ago. "At the time, I felt I was doing what I was supposed to be doing as a parent," she explained. "When I got my son back they gave me a booklet about how to discipline him. That was great and all, but there was still something missing. I was a young parent who was dying on the inside. There were mental health issues, where we needed some therapy. There were some family issues going on. We needed some help."

Today, Larene says her experience has led to wisdom. When she talks with parents at the clinic, "I realize that the abuse is a detail, " she said. "What we need to ask is, 'What is the core? What's going on? What's going on with the parent?'"

Those are questions that Justice Meyer is determined to answer. "We need people who really believe that parents can change," she said.

For more information about the William Mitchell College of Law Child Protection Clinic, click here.

Mark Saxenmeyer can be reached at msaxenmeyer@kstp.com