Lawsuit: State Gave Child Foster Care License to Known Abuser
The Hennepin County Human Services Department allowed the placement of a foster care child into the home of a Brooklyn Park woman who had a record of substantiated child abuse, according to a lawsuit filed Monday in U.S. District Court in Minneapolis.
In December 2014, 6-year old Kendrea Johnson was found dead in that foster care mother’s home. The child was found hanging from a bunk bed in her bedroom.
5 EYEWITNESS NEWS reviewed the child’s welfare record cited in the lawsuit that shows that Hennepin County child protection authorities knew in December 2000 that the foster care mother, Tannise Nawaqavou, had a record of child abuse.
But because of a little-known state law, commonly known as “the look-back law,” Nawaqavou was granted a foster care license by DHS in October 2011 because a defined period of time had expired since her violation, thus allowing her to become eligible to take care of abused children. All foster care applicants must undergo a background check by the state prior to a decision being made on whether to grant a license.
A January 2011 DHS background studies memo stated that Nawaqavou “physically abused her child or a child in her care,” according to the document reviewed by 5 EYEWITNESS NEWS and which is referred to in the lawsuit.
When she was asked in an interview about the DHS record, Nawaqavou denied ever having a record of child abuse.
“I don’t know about that,” Nawaqavou said. “That’s negative. That’s the first time I’ve heard that.”
Jerry Kerber, DHS’ Inspector General declined to be interviewed about the look-back law and Johnson’s case.
Following Johnson’s death, Nawaqavou’s foster care license was revoked in March 2015. DHS cited the fact that she had “provided false and misleading information during the child foster care license application process,” according to state records.
The lawsuit accuses Hennepin County child protection workers, a private foster care agency, Family Alternatives Inc., and a day treatment center, Lifespan of Minnesota, of failing to adequately protect the child before she died. Hennepin County officials and Lifespan declined comment on the suit.
The attorney for Family Alternatives Inc. said the agency he represents should not be held accountable for the child’s death.
“It isn’t the result of anything Family Alternatives has done wrong or the foster parent,” said Rich Thomas. “It’s just a terrible circumstance.”
But Jeff Storms, one of the attorneys representing Johnson’s grandmother, said child protection authorities and the other named parties failed the child and her family when she was removed from her mother’s custody.
"Kendrea was alive at the time they took her,” Storms said. “She had family members who loved her, who kept her alive, who made sure she was going to school. Knowing that they are putting that child in the home of an abuser is a clear and obvious step towards potential peril for that child. Why would we take that risk? If we were going to put money, energy and resources into anything, it should be making sure that we have good foster parents. Not giving money to known abusers.”
Three months before Johnson died, a Hennepin County child protection worker allegedly expressed concerns about whether the girl had been placed in the right foster care setting, according to state records cited in the suit.
Monica Jochmans “had severe concerns about (Johnson’s) routine, supervision plan and what Nawaqavou does to ‘keep children safe that present with higher needs,” according to the state records.
Jeff Montpetit, co-counsel with Storms, said that an overall review of Johnson’s records show a continuing pattern of failure. “Nobody was in charge,” Montpetit said. “Nobody cared enough to take charge and do things in Kendrea’s best interest. I think it’s a system that in its current state is broken. In its current state it needs to be overhauled and we hope to bring some of those deficiencies to light so that things like this don’t ever have to happen again.”
Mary Broadus, Johnson’s grandmother, isn’t optimistic.
“These are babies,” she said. “And bad things are happening to them. She (Johnson) wasn’t the first and she's not going to be the last. There’s someone who loves these kids out there. I’m not just fighting for Kendrea. I’m fighting for all the babies this has happened to.”