Minnesota’s renewed effort to stop child abuse and neglect is straining the foster care system, a refuge for children removed from their homes.
The number of children placed into foster care has risen dramatically in the past year, and a larger share of them are staying in the system longer, state child welfare and court records show. Some foster parents are also complaining that a cut in reimbursements is discouraging them from taking any more children.
Those providers are crucial in responding to the 22 percent increase since 2014 in the state’s foster care population, according to the Minnesota Department of Human Services. As of Sept. 1, 8,213 foster children are waiting to be returned home or placed with an adoptive family.
The increase in foster children has created a backlog of cases in juvenile courts, where judges need to find permanent homes for those children in 18 months. That goal was only met 90 percent of the time in 2015, the lowest rate in five years, according to a report released last week by the Minnesota judicial branch. Seventy percent of foster care children waited a year or more before they were returned home or adopted.
The growth in the foster care population follows a series of reforms that require child protection workers to investigate more abuse reports. Those reforms, recommended by a task force appointed by Gov. Mark Dayton and passed by the Legislature, came in response to the Star Tribune’s reporting last year on child protection failures.
“We believe that the increase in the visibility of child protection issues both through the media as well as the Legislature have had a big impact,” said Jim Koppel, the assistant DHS commissioner for children and family services.
Koppel said a foster care task force is examining how to deal with the increase in foster children and the cuts in reimbursements and will make recommendations to the Legislature next spring.
More homes needed
Stevens County District Judge Gerald Seibel thinks there’s another reason more children are ending up in foster care: substance abuse. In 2013, drug and alcohol abuse by parents accounted for 32 percent of the children placed into foster care, up from 17 percent in 2007.
To reduce the time children wait in foster care, Seibel said, the state needs more foster care providers. Those providers often end up adopting their foster children.
“Right now, there’s only a limited number of foster cares to put kids,” said Seibel, who serves in western Minnesota and serves on the Children’s Justice Initiative, which examines how well the state’s juvenile courts do their job.
The number of foster care beds in Minnesota had been dropping steadily since 2004 until this year, when the state licensed 213 new homes. But that increase doesn’t come close to keeping up with the nearly 1,500 more children placed into foster care since 2014.
Making matters worse for some foster parents is a cut in reimbursement rates. This year, the state equalized foster care and adoption stipends for older children to encourage more adoptions. But now some foster parents have complained to the Department of Human Services that their reimbursements have been cut from about $40 a day to $18.50, said Marsha Van Denburgh, an Oak Grove foster parent who is organizing opposition to the change.
That change is why Stacy Mooney of Nowthen stopped providing foster care after seven years. Mooney typically took babies withdrawing from drugs and alcohol, staying up all hours of the night to soothe them. But when the reimbursement rate changed, she estimated that she paid $350 out of her own pocket a week for such necessities as formula, diapers, clothing and gas.
“I can’t do it anymore,” Mooney said. “I’m taking a break.”
For parents of younger foster children, the financial disincentive to adopt remains.
Linda Trepanier of Lakeville is getting paid $2,000 a month to foster medically fragile twins. If she were to adopt them under the new reimbursement system, her payments would be cut in half.
“The new system is failing the medically fragile children,” Trepanier said.
Koppel of DHS said the new reimbursement system is being re-examined, but he said it’s successful by one measure: it’s boosting the number of older children who are adopted.
“We’re hearing both positive and negative,” Koppel said.