When Family Preservation Overrides Common Sense

Note: This article was updated on Friday, Feb. 10

As the investigative report by Lee Rood of the Des Moines Register reveals, something made Mindy Knapp very angry at her adopted daughters – Malayia, aged 17, and her 14-year-old sister – on the night of Nov. 30, 2015. 

Knapp told the girls’ 16-year-old brother to discipline them. He made Malayia and her sister run up and down the basement stairs while pouring water over their heads.

He forced them to do push-ups, sit-ups and run outside soaking wet without shoes and a coat. When they did not move quickly enough, he hit them with a belt or poured water on them, according to Malayia.

The next morning, the punishment continued. While running around the house, Malayia noticed that her mother was not looking. She grabbed her bike and cycled to the nearest convenience store. Barefoot, wearing a sweatshirt and pajama bottoms, and covered with bruises, welts and open sores, Malayia begged for a phone to call police.

The ensuing investigation revealed a horror story that had gone on for years, Rood reports, who obtained child welfare documents from the Department of Human Services and interviewed Malayia. Malayia was one of six adopted siblings and three biological children who lived with Mindy and Anthony Knapp, who home-schooled the children in Urbandale, Iowa.

Malayia reported that she and her siblings were beaten so severely that the belts they were hit with broke. They were tied up, forced to exercise for long periods of time and in the cold without coats or shoes. A year before she escaped, Malayia was locked in a basement room with no windows, no bed, no food and little water for seven days. She said she was allowed to go to the bathroom once a day.

According to an agency report given to the Des Moines Register, video from cameras in the house document Mindy Knapp handing a belt to the older children with instructions to discipline a sibling and lock them up for hours. The videos were later used as evidence.

The investigation resulted in the removal of all the adopted siblings from the Knapp home. Mindy and Anthony Knapp were found responsible for multiple allegations of abuse and neglect including physical abuse, denial of critical care and failure to provide adequate food. Mindy Knapp was convicted of assault.

But incredibly, all of the children except Malayia were returned to the Knapps by Judge Colin Witt, reportedly against the recommendations of the Department of Human Services. According to State Sen. Matt McCoy, who has been advocating for Malayia and her siblings, the parents acknowledged their mistakes and agreed to services. The judge reportedly felt that the family could be salvaged and it would be more disruptive to remove the children.

Malayia was moved to another foster home, then reached out to a minister of a church she had attended with the Knapps. She is currently living with him and his wife and attending community college. She is also in touch with her father and grandmother.

It is hard for this veteran social worker to believe that remaining in the home where they had been abused, made to abuse their siblings, or observed their abuse could possibly be less harmful than removing them. I would even question the decision not to remove the family’s biological children, who must have suffered vicarious trauma even if they were never abused.

And to make matters even worse, Mindy and Anthony Knapp continued to receive monthly adoption subsidies for Malaiya’s siblings. 

A check on federal and Iowa law shows that the judge did not violate any statute by returning the children home. There are almost no circumstances in which the state can bypass making “reasonable efforts” to return the siblings of an abused child to the home. The parents would have had to kill the child, or commit a felony assault on that child that caused serious bodily injury.

I guess Malayia’s bruises, welts and running sores did not qualify. Had the parents’ rights to Malayia been terminated, that would give the state grounds not to send the siblings home, and that is probably what the agency was planning on before the judge decided.

When the law essentially allows the decision to go either way, beliefs and attitudes dictate decisions. And the judge’s belief that returning to a house of horrors is better than disruption is an example of the “Family Preservation at all Costs” attitude that currently predominates in child welfare.

Proponents of family preservation-at-all-costs often say that abused children love their parents and want to stay with them. And indeed, Malayia’s 14-year-old sister reportedly asked the police not to remove her because this was the best home she had ever had. She also said that she had deserved the punishment they had received.

Yes, abused children often want to go home. That does not mean that going home is in their best interests. The belief that returning a child to be abused is better than disrupting a family is an example of family preservation ideology overriding common sense and common decency.

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Marie K. Cohen
About Marie K. Cohen 68 Articles
Marie K. Cohen (MPA, MSW) is a child advocate, researcher, and policy analyst. She worked as social worker in the District of Columbia's child welfare system for five years. She is a member of the Citizen's Review Committee for the DC Child and Family Services Agency and the DC Child Fatality Review Commission and a mentor to a foster youth. Follow her blog at fosteringreform.blogspot.org, on Facebook at Fostering Reform or on Twitter@fosteringreform.