By Jessica Washington
Last year, following the murder of George Floyd by Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin, the city of Minneapolis was thrust into the national spotlight and became the epicenter of a broader conversation around racism, policing, and the injustices of the criminal justice system.
But an ongoing story in the same community that didn’t make the headlines was allegations of discrimination against Native American girls in Hennepin County, which encompasses Minneapolis. From the school disciplinary system to the foster care system to the juvenile justice system, advocates allege widespread inequities, which have serious consequences for the Native American girls who find themselves navigating these three interconnected systems.
“When you’re defending even just an individual youth, you’re pushing against these really intensive pressures and really problematic frameworks that criminalize Native American kids,” said Sarah Davis, executive director of the Legal Rights Center, a legal services nonprofit based in Minneapolis. “And I’ve seen it play out really significantly with Native American girls in particular.”
Although county and gender-specific data are hard to come by, the data on out-of-home placement rates paint a picture of what Native girls in the county are experiencing once they’ve entered the juvenile detention system. Native American youth in Hennepin County are significantly less likely than white youth to be released home after spending time in a juvenile detention center, according to Hennepin County’s 2018 Admissions to Juvenile Detention report. And statewide, Native American youth in Minnesota experience the “highest out-of-home placement rates in the entire nation,” according to the 2019 Juvenile Justice Advisory Committee’s annual report.
The disparities in the treatment of Native American youth and girls don’t just begin once they’ve entered the juvenile detention system. Statewide, Native girls are also more likely to be sent to the office than any other racial group and 13 times more likely than white girls to receive out-of-school suspension, according to a 2020 Status of Women and Girls in Minnesota report.
Many of these trends continue into adulthood. Even though less than 2% of Minnesotan women identify as Native American, Native women account for roughly 6% of all police stops, according to the same 2020 report. And nearly 15% of Native women in Minnesota have been sentenced to prison, higher than any other racial group.
These inequities also extend into the foster care system. Only 1.1% of people living in Hennepin County identify as Native American, according to the 2019 U.S. Census. However, roughly 17% of children in foster care in Hennepin County identify as American Indian or Native American, according to Hennepin County Foster Care and Adoption.
The disparities facing Native girls in Hennepin County, Minnesota, are extreme, but they speak to a greater national problem. Nationally, Native girls are more than four times as likely to be incarcerated as white girls, according to the Youth Justice Initiative, higher than any other racial group. This national data showcases that the story we uncover in Hennepin will likely have implications far beyond the county’s borders.
In a three-part series for the Fuller Project, I intend to combine my expertise on race and gender-based reporting with a local newsroom’s on-the-ground-expertise and community knowledge to illustrate how and why Native American girls face disparities in Hennepin County. This story, supported by the 2021 National Fellowship, will examine discipline in Hennepin County schools, foster care placement, and how Native girls enter and are treated in the county’s juvenile detention system.
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