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CROOKSTON, Minn. — More than 100 Somali people packed the hallways of the Polk County Courthouse Monday, praying and then pressing officials to explain why the six children of a Somali mother had been taken away from her.
Nimo Khalif, 33, a widow who came to America from a refugee camp in Kenya in late 2014, had been raising the children ages 10 months to 16 years alone in East Grand Forks. Suddenly, the kids were in the custody of Polk County child protective services.
A distraught Nimo posted a video pleading in Somali for help. She said she wasn’t told why the children, ages 10 months to 16 years old, were removed and didn’t know what to do. Later, she would describe it as a “kidnapping.”
The Somali community across Minnesota responded. The widely shared video helped deliver supporters to the courthouse Monday, including many who drove nearly five hours from the Twin Cities.
They left without answers. It turns out the case is more complicated than those responding to Nimo’s pleas might have realized. While concerns remain in the Somali community that Nimo’s being treated differently because she’s Somali, the facts are not yet black and white.
‘Possible child abuse’
It began when one of Nimo’s daughters allegedly told a teacher in an email that she did not feel safe at home and was afraid to live with her mother.
Schools are required to report any suspected cases of abuse, so the East Grand Forks police were brought in. A school resource officer from the department began investigating in mid-January, and then got the county’s social services department involved.
“We had reports of possible child abuse and neglect,” police chief Michael Hedlund told Sahan Journal. After interviewing the children, “a joint decision between social services and our officers were that it was in the best interest of the children that they be removed at that time.”
On Jan. 22, social services workers and the police came to the schools of Nimo’s school-age children, ages 16 to 6, and took them into protective custody.
Nimo said she did not know where the children were or what had happened. She said she left the 10-month-old baby boy she was breastfeeding with a friend as she searched for the other children.
She said she was summoned to the police department, where she learned what had happened to her school-age children. Nimo said she reluctantly told them where the baby was after being threatened with arrest.
Hedlund said the case is still a police matter, although Nimo has not been arrested or charged with a crime. The chief said authorities would wait for the social services department to complete its investigation before they determine their next step.
“Anytime our social services gets involved, the concern is there’s some issue in that family,” he said. “It could be just a parent-child disagreement.”
That belief — that what’s happening in Polk County may turn out to be a misunderstanding or simple family disagreement — has frustrated her supporters and bred mistrust of the process.
Local authorities appear to be doing their work by the book, but it’s unlikely they’ve been in a situation where a new immigrant community has collectively pushed for more information on a child custody case.
Despite intense interest from the Somali community, Karen Warmack, director of Polk County Social Services, declined to give details about the case.
“I am not able to share any particulars about the case because of any confidentiality or confirm or deny what’s happening,” Warmack said.
‘Loves her kids so much’
The case has reverberated across Minnesota and the world. Somali National TV sent a reporter to cover the hearing. The video it posted on Facebook has nearly 150,000 views.
Somali community members who know Nimo said they couldn’t understand how she suddenly lost custody of her children.
Nimo strived to make sure her children were successful in their academic and Islamic education, said Abdirizak Duale, chair of Al-Huda Islamic Center of East Grand Forks
“She used to bring her children to the mosque,” Abdirizak said. “All her schedule revolved around her children, whether she was going to work, taking them to the Quranic school or to (public) school.”
Amina Hassan, a friend and neighbor of Nimo who works at the daycare center Nimo’s infant son attends, said she was so upset by what had happened to her friend, she wasn’t able to cook for her family for three days.
Another neighbor, Nasra Awad, broke down in tears when a reporter asked about Nimo. “She loves her kids so much,” she said. “Sometimes she’s overprotective.”
Nimo, 33, works as a teacher’s assistant at Central Middle School, the same school where two of her daughters were taken into protective custody. She remains an employee of the district and has not been put on leave.
She said her husband, the children’s father, died 10 months ago in Uganda, leaving her to raise their children in far northwestern Minnesota without immediate family nearby.
She told Sahan Journal multiple times that she doesn’t know why child protective agency workers removed the kids from her custody, describing it as “kidnapping.”
In an interview Friday, she wandered absent-mindedly around the kitchen of her two-bedroom apartment looking at photos, her daughters’ school backpacks and an empty baby’s crib. The typical noises of six children were gone.
Since the children were pulled from her custody, Nimo said she has no knowledge about the welfare of her children or who they are living with. That includes the infant son who needs to be breastfed.
Nimo, who said she had not met a child protective agency worker before this, said the sudden removal of her children caused her not eat or sleep for days.
“They took away part of my heart,” she said. “I have worked tirelessly to raise six children. How could they take away my children like that?”
‘Ayeeyo, I love you’
Nimo briefly saw her four daughters during Monday’s court hearing. She hadn’t seen them since Wednesday last week. They sat a few feet from her, next to a county social services woman. Her 6-year-old boy and 10-month-old baby were not brought to court.
The girls waved at the crowd of people on the second floor of the court who craned their necks to get a glimpse of the daughters.
“Ayeeyo, I love you,” Meyran Omar, the daughter’s grandmother, told the daughters. “Ayeeyo” means grandmother and is a common Somali greeting between grandparents and grandchildren.
“I love you too,” one of them replied.
At least two of her daughters ran toward Nimo when they saw her, but a security guard stopped them, according to several people who were allowed to enter the closed courtroom and witnessed the scene.
Nimo has retained DeWayne Johnston, a Grand Forks, N.D., attorney. He declined to speak to a reporter about the case. Her next hearing is set for Feb. 10.
At Monday’s hearing, a judge told Nimo that she can visit her infant son four times a week to breastfeed and to bond. The court will determine how or when she can see her other children.