Gregory Van Leer Sr. and his wife have been foster parents for almost 20 years. They’ve seen more than 70 children come and go, most of them staying at their home from six to 12 months. And he thinks the foster care system needs reform.
“The perceptions of foster care have been misinterpreted by a lot of people,” he said. “Sometimes the structure from the county doesn’t really work well for the kids.”
That’s why he participated this week in the Quality Parenting Initiative, a two-day workshop for different groups involved in foster care at the Wellstone Center in St. Paul.
About 200 people — biological and foster parents, case workers, state and county leaders in child welfare — attended the event Tuesday and Wednesday to come up with some solutions for the state’s system.
One of the biggest issues the group sought to address was the rate at which children return to the system. In 2014, 26 percent of children returned to foster care within a year in Minnesota, the highest in the nation at the time.
Workshop participants also talked about focusing child protection services on improving parenting rather than simply removing children temporarily from a threatening situation, organizers said. This, they said, would reduce the trauma everyone in the process might face.
“For children to thrive, they need quality parenting,” said Julie Sjordal, the CEO of St. David’s Center. “We set up a foster care system nationally that’s not focused on parenting, it’s focused on safety.”
About 15,000 children went through out-of-home care in Minnesota last year, many of them dealing with parental abuse or neglect, according to the state Department of Human Services. Hennepin County alone is expected to spend more than $40 million on the system this year, a $6 million increase from last year.
Minnesota is one of a handful of states that has gone through the program run by the Youth Law Center, a national law firm. St. David’s, a child and family development agency based in Minnetonka, first met with the group two years ago in an attempt to bring the workshop to the state.
Other private agencies, including children’s advocacy group AspireMN, became involved.
The initiative aims to smooth the relationship between foster and biological parents, which can sometimes be hostile. That included bringing people to the table who don’t often get heard, including the foster and biological parents themselves.
“They need to understand that we’re not [adversarial],” said Van Leer, who has worked with St. David’s for five years. “We’re not at war with you because we have your child.”
“Often these initiatives are started by a county system or a state department,” Sjordal said.
“What if we just figure it out together?” she asked. “Let’s work on something together instead of in our own silos.”