Thousands of Minnesota children living in temporary foster care could find permanent homes under a new state program that eliminates the long-standing financial penalty for people who adopt foster children.

The new program, Northstar Care for Children, which the state Department of Human Services launched this month, simplifies and significantly increases monthly benefits for more than 7,000 children across Minnesota who receive state adoption assistance — giving foster care parents more of a financial incentive to adopt children who are unable to be cared for by their birthparents.

Traditionally, foster care children in Minnesota have seen their state benefits cut by up to 50 percent after they were adopted or legally moved in with relatives. This stark disparity in benefits discouraged many parents from giving foster care children permanent homes, often forcing children to move from one family to the next.

The move to equalize payments between children in foster care and those who leave foster care through adoption marks a major victory for child advocates, who have long argued that parity would improve permanency and stability for children who have already suffered the trauma of being separated from their birthparents.

Until now, there were three separate subsidy programs, each with different criteria, for foster care providers as well as adoptive parents and relatives who take permanent custody of foster care children. Under the Northstar Care program, these separate benefits will be replaced with a single monthly subsidy for all children age 6 or older.

Most families participating in the new Northstar Care program will receive $283 to $790 in monthly basic benefits, depending on the child’s age. Many will also receive a monthly supplemental payment ranging from $50 to $1,500, depending on the assessed needs of the child and what the caregivers are doing to meet those needs.

“If you remove some of the complexity,” said Department of Human Services Commissioner Lucinda Jesson, “families will be more likely to take that big step and adopt.”

Like many states, Minnesota has struggled to identify ways to encourage adoption of foster children. Statewide, nearly two-thirds of children who have been in foster care for a year or longer “age out” of the system — meaning, they turn 18 years of age without finding a permanent home.

Statewide, there are currently about 350 foster children ready for adoption; and at any one time, about 3,000 children have been in foster care longer than one year.

Studies have found that adolescents who age out of foster care are more likely to end up homeless or with criminal records than children who find permanent homes.

“We have too many kids aging out of foster care, and too many children waiting too long to be adopted,” Jesson said. “Every child deserves a permanent home and a permanent family. And the financial differences were getting in the way.”

State officials floated the idea of increasing benefits for adoptive parents as far back as 2008, but the state’s giant budget deficit at the time prevented the Legislature from approving funding until 2013. The Northstar Care program is expected to cost about $15 million over the next three years, as the program is phased in across the state.

The new program should particularly benefit older foster care children who may have more behavioral problems because they have endured multiple failed attempts to place them with their birthparents, child advocates say.

“There absolutely should be parity” between foster care and adoption benefits, said Joan Riebel, executive director of Family Alternatives, a foster care agency in Minneapolis that licenses and trains foster care families.

“Families shouldn’t have to struggle with financial losses because they are choosing to adopt a child.”

 

Twitter: @chrisserres