Nimo Khalif, a Somali mother whose children were removed by child protective services, walks out of the Polk County Courthouse on Monday, March 2, 2020. Credit: Dymanh Chhoun | Sahan Journal

CROOKSTON, Minn. — A Somali woman whose children were removed from her care is facing questions of child maltreatment in a case drawing the attention of Somali communities worldwide to northwestern Minnesota.


Nimo Khalif came to America five years ago from a refugee camp in Kenya, hoping to give her children a better life. In January, however, one of her daughters alleged Nimo physically abused her and her siblings. That led authorities to remove the children, then ages 10 months to 16. 


Nimo denies abusing her children and has not been arrested or charged with a crime. On Monday, though, Larry Orvik, an assistant Polk County attorney, told a packed courtroom that while the child custody investigation continues, it’s possible Nimo may face “charges of felony child abuse.”


DeWayne Johnston, Nimo’s attorney, said the children were suffering as he urged the court to move quickly in the custody case. He told the judge of skin rashes and scrapes, hospitalizations and school suspensions and raised concerns about the lack of social workers and evaluators experienced in Somali culture.


“They are not getting proper care,” Johnston said, urging the judge to place the kids with a Somali foster family who can provide cultural food and personal hygiene care to the children. “This is a deteriorating situation.”


RELATED: A northwestern Minnesota county removed a Somali mother’s kids. Somalis want to know why.

The case drew the scrutiny of Minnesota’s Somali community after Nimo posted a Facebook video pleading for help getting her children back and later describing their removal as a “kidnapping.” 


Somalis from around Minnesota responded by coming to Crookston with questions: Was this a simple family disagreement or cultural misunderstanding, or something more serious? Was Nimo being treated differently because she’s Somali?


Those questions remain as the investigation continues. 


Language barriers are also a major concern. That was evident Monday when Orvik, the county prosecutor, raised the possibility of child abuse charges.


Nimo, who doesn’t fully understand the English language, made no visible reaction to the news because the interpreter for the court did not clearly convey the attorneys’ statements. 


The interpreter, for instance, did not wait for the attorneys to complete their statements and so was interpreting incomplete sentences. At times throughout the hearing, he appeared to struggle to properly translate words.


Nimo will have another pretrial hearing on the child custody case on March 30. The child custody trial is expected to begin in May.


Nimo is allowed to visit the children for a few hours every week. “They get very happy when they see me,” she said. “They say, ‘Mom, when are we coming back home?’”


The children’s counsel, Josh Nyberg, said Nimo’s girls have expressed the desire to continue with their weekend Quranic education, which has been disrupted since they were removed from their mother.


The oldest, who’s 16, also wants her siblings to be placed in “Somali homes that practice Islam,” Nyberg said.


At a press conference after the hearing, Nimo met her supporters at a Somali restaurant in Grand Forks, N.D., and thanked them for their support.


She said she hopes she will get her children back soon. 


“I’ve been both a mom and dad to them,” said Nimo, whose husband died last year. “I’m feeling what any parent would feel in this situation, and more.”

Mukhtar Ibrahim is the founding publisher and CEO of Sahan Journal. He previously worked as a staff writer for the Star Tribune and Minnesota Public Radio News. He has also written for the St. Paul...