BY ELIZABETH AMON | The Imprint
Shortly before Christmas of 2019, Cheryl Beaver loaded her 6-year-old grandson Keyon onto the school bus, as she did each weekday morning. Beaver, who had cared for the first-grader since he was a baby, was leaving Seattle to attend a niece’s graduation. In her place, she had arranged for her adult son to pick Keyon up from his after-school program.
But when the boy’s uncle arrived later that day, Keyon was gone. In a panic, Beaver and his mom, Salina Simpson, made frantic calls to try and find him.
It was hours before they were able to confirm that Keyon was safe, but had been taken into foster care.
“I felt like they kidnapped my son,” Simpson said. “I didn’t know what was going on — they just snatched him up.”
Over the next three weeks, as Beaver tried to regain custody of her grandson, Keyon cycled through three foster homes, finally landing with a white family. Keyon, who is Black, had his braids cut off along the way, and he didn’t make it home for Christmas.
It was nearly a year before Keyon left foster care, due to a rare and unexpected ruling in his mother’s case before the dependency courts. Simpson had lost all custody rights after she was found to have neglected Keyon due to her drug addiction. But she successfully overturned her “termination of parent rights” order, undoing the “civil death penalty” of child welfare cases.
The young boy’s ordeal last year is now on review before the Washington Supreme Court, whose ruling legal advocates say could be critical to the future of relative’s rights in foster care placement decisions, and address racial bias in the child welfare system.
Vivek Sankaran, a professor at the University of Michigan Law School who reviewed the case said it could be “persuasive” on these important matters. “Child welfare law is still overall in its infancy and I think states are looking at other states for guidance,” he said.Keyon’s lawyer Jennifer Winkler wrote in her petition for the high court review on its significance for racial equity: “The circumstances in this case are troubling, and they are part of a larger pattern of fragmentation of Black families.”
The Washington Supreme Court did not indicate a reason for accepting the case, after the appeals court for the Seattle area denied to hear it. But the highest state court hears cases when they present substantial public interest issues that are likely to reoccur, even if the underlying issues are moot. In Keyon’s case, his mom regained custody rights and he has gone home to live with her.
Last summer’s protests over racial injustice may have played a role in the court’s rare acceptance of a case the lower courts had not heard, some observers said. In June, the state Supreme Court issued a letter in response to George Floyd’s killing that recognized institutions are responsible for continued racism and that “the legal community must recognize that we all bear responsibility.”
After that letter was sent, “we’ve noticed an uptick in cases that bring race to the forefront,” said Ali Hohman, director of legal services at the Washington Defender Association.
Keyon’s case involves a child removed from Black relatives, in a dependency case where social workers were trying to place him for adoption with a prospective white family, and race has been specifically addressed in the proceedings.