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Children at Risk: Foster Children's Rights Ignored

October 28, 2016 08:02 AM

Getting off a school bus, heading home for an afternoon snack and sitting down for homework.

McKenna Ahrenholz doesn't complain about an average afternoon.  

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She has much more important ways to use her small voice in an effort to make a lot of noise.

"As early as I can remember I was in the system," she wrote in a letter to lawmakers explaining her life while she was caught in Minnesota's flawed child protection system. "I have been punched, starved and neglected."

They're big words to come from such a small person. At just 12 years old, McKenna is fighting for the thousands of foster kids across the state who don't have a voice.

Because, in Minnesota, they're not always given one.

"No one would listen that we wanted to stay at grandpa and grandma's," the letter continued. "The people who make the laws like yourselves need to hear us children who are the ones going through such a crazy life."

McKenna and her four siblings have a lengthy history with child protection in counties all across the state.

Their mother's parental rights were terminated years ago and the children were last removed from their father's Swift County home in September, 2014.

McKenna was 10. Her older brother, Jacob, 11.

"He weighed about 60 pounds," McKenna said of her older brother at the time of their removal from home.

They were malnourished and frail but neither sibling was offered an attorney to speak on their behalf.

"The statute is very clear that it's a child age 10 and older who is entitled to an attorney. Not 12. Not 13. Ten," said the Executive Director of the Children's Law Center, Lilia Panteleeva, as she explained the legal rights of foster children.  

"It says if a child desired an attorney, the court shall appoint one," she said. "How do we get to that desire? Who gets to that desire? When, at what point, do we get to that desire?"

Panteleeva believes the loophole in the law lies within that one word.

The statute says if children 10 and older desire an attorney, the court shall appoint one.

However, the law doesn't specify who informs eligible foster children of those rights.

"How is a 10-year-old in foster care going to know that they have a right to an attorney and express their wish? To whom? Do you pick up the phone and say, 'I want a lawyer!'?" said Panteleeva.

According to the American Bar Association, Minnesota is one of six states in the nation that only provides a lawyer to some kids.

McKenna's life turned upside down overnight.

Police removed her on the second day of 5th grade.

There were social workers and a Guardian ad Litem but as the little girl and her siblings were shuffled between different foster homes for months, McKenna says no one told her that she, too, had a say.

"Do you remember how you would feel when you'd find out you were going back to your dad's?" asked 5 EYEWITNESS NEWS.

"I'd be like please no," answered McKenna. "He abuses us. Why bring us back?"

"And you would tell the people who were moving you around - you would say that to them?" we asked.

She nodded yes.

"We'd usually steal our food from the cupboards because we weren't... he wouldn't feed us," McKenna said as she described her life while living under her father's care.

McKenna says she used a knife to open cans of food that she snuck into her bedroom to feed herself and her siblings.

"It was very hard to live," said the now 12-year-old as she looked back at old pictures of her former home.

Some of the photos show dog feces on the children's clothes.

"They were just covered with poop," she said. "When we had to go to school, I would clean off our clothes."

McKenna isn't afraid to talk about any of it, including the memories that are the hardest to hear.

"He would like... he punched me in the face once."

The allegations are all recorded in a parental evaluation report filed in January, 2015.

Records show that case workers even documented concerns that the kids' father, Jesse Ahrenholz, "had been physically abusive to the children at times, and also verbally abusive. The children often did not have meals , clean clothing, or an acceptable environment which to live."

"We'd usually say we don't want to go back to our dad's," said McKenna. "He abused us. Why would we want to go back?"

Unable to reach McKenna's father in person, 5 EYEWITNESS NEWS was able to connect over the phone.

"She was never abused," said Jesse Ahrenholz, the father of all five siblings.

Jesse Ahrenholz denies ever physically abusing the children but admits there were times when food and other basic needs were hard to provide.

"Everybody has weak moments in their lives. There was usually a week at the end of the month where we were hungry," said the father. "I'm admitting that we needed help. My family needed help and we didn't get the help we needed."

When 5 EYEWITNESS NEWS asked McKenna what her greatest worry was when she was living with her dad, she replied, "If they would get hurt when I was gone," referencing her siblings.

McKenna didn't keep those feelings to herself.

That same parental evaluation report reads, "records indicate that at times when the children were interviewed by law enforcement or service workers, they reported not feeling safe at Jesse's home."
 
In a Swift County court filing, a social worker even reported McKenna saying she did not want to live at Jesse's, "because he'll hurt us if we go back."

However, without a voice in the courtroom, the children were forced to continue with court ordered visitations.

"It makes me angry when they won't even listen to me and sad that there's still kids going through all of that," said McKenna.

That's why the Children's Law Center plays a crucial role in many foster children's lives.

They've already represented a record 660 children so far this year.

"I would say we have about 400 open cases right now," said Panteleeva.

The center works closely with Ramsey and Hennepin counties, immediately assigning volunteer attorneys to foster children 10 and older.

That's about 75 percent of their work.

The rest of the cases they take on are requests from kids themselves.

"They'll look us up on the internet and they'll call us and say, "I need a lawyer!" Alright. Let's talk about it."

However, the non-profit doesn't have the resources to help every county.

5 EYEWITNESS NEWS asked: "If the well-being of the child is put first, how do we do that without hearing them?"

"I don't know how we do that without listening to the child," said Panteleeva. "Honestly, I dont know how we do that without asking. It's their life. It's the rest of their life."

Nearly one year after McKenna and her siblings were put into foster care, the court finally appointed a public defender to represent them.

Documents show it took 11 full months to appoint Jacob and McKenna the attorney they deserved and were entitled to all along.

Shortly after, their Guardian ad Litem wrote, "the children did not report concerns or negative situations while in Jesse's care until recently," but those records of abuse allegations and documented conversations with the kids dated months before clearly show otherwise.

"I think that should have never happened," said McKenna. "It's hard."

After the court appointed the kids' attorney, their well-being drastically improved.

Custody was transferred to their paternal grandfather, Todd Thimmesch, and his fiance, Kathy Burland.

All five siblings now live with them in a little white house behind a little white picket fence.

McKenna still spends most of her time helping her siblings, only now, it's by climbing trees and finishing homework.  

5 EYEWITNESS NEWS asked McKenna if she ever knew that she had a right to an attorney all that time. She shook her head no.

"She didn't know it then," said the woman the siblings now call grandma, Kathy Burland. "She knows it now."

That's why McKenna wrote her letter to lawmakers asking them to listen.

"What saved us were our grandma and grandpa and the letters we wrote to the judge asking not to go back to our dad's house," she wrote.

Because despite the loopholes and vague language written in the law, what is clear is that one voice can make all the difference. As long as someone is there to hear it.

McKenna closes the letter by writing, "I encourage each of you to talk to kids in foster care and {find out} what they really want. I believe that kids should be with their parents if they can, but a lot of the time it would be better that another home be found. Your friend, McKenna Ahrenholz."

McKenna testified to lawmakers and shared her story in February. Still, no lawmaker has stepped forward to fix the law and ensure the rights of foster children are followed.

5 EYEWITNESS NEWS reached out to Swift County for comment but they declined an on camera interview, telling us via email they are, "unable to comment on specifics regarding any case."

McKenna and her grandma are now working on a guide for foster kids that would inform them of their rights. She says, when she grows up, she wants to be a foster parent, too.

Credits

Katherine Johnson

Copyright 2016 - KSTP-TV, LLC A Hubbard Broadcasting Company

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