Anoka County saved $1.3 million last year by keeping children out of foster care, thanks, in part, to a philosophy imported from Australia.

By evaluating the strengths of a family and available resources, the county has kept kids safe in their own homes while offering needed support for parents, said Cindy Cesare, Anoka County’s social services and mental health director. That philosophy comes from training with Chaska-based Connected Families.

“Essentially, it comes out of Australia,” Cesare said last week. “Instead of putting kids immediately in foster care, we take more of an in-depth look at the family and community resources.

“We’re trying to develop a plan that will monitor and support parents, while making sure kids are safe.”

Twenty years ago, the Signs of Safety approach to families of children in danger care was developed in Australia by social workers and child-protection consultants Andrew Turnell and Steve Edwards. The program calls for a comprehensive risk assessment of families, examining strengths and dangers.

Turnell brought that philosophy to Minnesota and to Connected Families, which began working with Anoka County five years ago.

“We worked with them to provide training and fundamental principles,” said Jim Jackson, founder of Connected Families. “The model that Andrew Turnell discovered is so powerful, and Anoka County had a lot of good stuff going already.”

Federal grants have helped. Last month, Anoka County accepted a $135,000 grant — to be spread over two years — for training and the county’s family-group decisionmaking program. Last year, the program served 64 families.

But the program has cut foster-care costs by including extended family members, who can care for the children if the parents are not deemed able.

The need for the program became evident during the meth epidemic of a decade ago.

“Families come under so much stress due to the economy,” Cesare said. “People are homeless, they get evicted, they have no food. These are stresses that lead to abusing children.

“Chemical abuse can send a trying atmosphere to a point where things spin out of control. When the meth epidemic hit Anoka County, we were experiencing a really high rate of kids going to foster care. The termination of parental rights was high.”

Instead of focusing on negatives, Anoka County focused on family strengths, Jackson said.

“All too often, assumptions are based on allegations,” Jackson said. “We don’t trust statements anybody makes.

“Anoka County, Carver County and others we work with are more interested in details that will make kids safe and keep them safe. We test things. It’s not our job to prove that something awful happened in the past. We just care that kids are safe and have safe futures.”

Even when a child is returned home, Anoka County keeps the case open for at least six months, Cesare said. Neighbors are asked to check on children. Family-based therapy is standard.

“We want to do what’s best for the children,” Cesare said.