More than 200 children have gone through Kate and Tyree Walton's foster home in Brooklyn Park in the past four years, but for them one child stands out. The girl was 5 in 2012, when the Waltons took her in. Over the next three years, the Waltons watched the girl treated like a yo-yo. Child protection workers sent the girl back to her drug-addicted father, only to pull her from the home and bring her back to the Waltons.
Each time they've had her, the girl "is more withdrawn," Kate Walton said. "She's older, understands what's going on, and she's angry."
What happened to the girl, considered foster care "re-entry," has happened to more than 8,000 Minnesota children since 2007. That's too many for the federal Children's Bureau. Last month, the agency told the state that it was withholding more than $755,000 in child protection funding because Minnesota's re-entry rates are too high.
Only four counties in the state had acceptable re-entry rates, according to records obtained by the Star Tribune through Minnesota's public records law. The national standard is no more than 10 percent of children re-entering foster care within a year, yet 58 counties had rates double the standard. Clearwater, Norman and Winona counties had rates at 40 percent or more, the highest in the state.
Minnesota has failed to meet the re-entry standard since at least 2007, records show. In 2014, about one in every four foster kids returned to out-of-home care, often because of repeated abuse.
That cycle, said Traci LaLiberte, a University of Minnesota child welfare professor, can have devastating effects on children. One reason for the high re-entry rate, she said, is that child protection walks away after reuniting children with troubled families.
"What is clear is that when kids get returned home, the agency should stay involved," said LaLiberte, the executive director for the school's Center for Advanced Studies in Child Welfare.
The Minnesota Department of Human Services (DHS) will recover costs from the federal penalty by taking the money from counties, basing their share on the number of children who were sent back to foster care. Hennepin and Ramsey counties will shoulder about $280,000 of the penalty due to their high re-entry rates and larger share of foster children.
Since 2001, the Children's Bureau has fined seven states and the District of Columbia for failing federal child protection standards.
The federal children's agency is also punishing Minnesota for not making required monthly visits with foster care children. The standard is 90 percent, but the state hit that target only 78 percent of the time in 2014.
The penalties come at a time when the number of children in foster care has grown to more than 11,000, and fewer families are signing on as foster parents.
Compounding the problem is that for several years, the state has failed to meet several other federal standards that measure whether foster children are placed in safe, permanent homes, the Star Tribune has found. Thousands of foster children have been moved between several homes before they're reunited with their families or adopted.
"We're not meeting the needs of the child," Jim Koppel, the assistant DHS commissioner for children and family services, said Thursday. "When we intervene in the best interests of the child … we have to continue to serve that child in all the places, in all the settings that child is in."
Koppel and DHS Inspector General Jerry Kerber will co-chair a foster care work group formed in June that will address the problems found by the federal government and the Star Tribune.
"We are going to substantially change the way we do foster care," said Koppel, who was appointed to his post in December following the Star Tribune's reporting on child protection failures. "We need to make more of an effort to have the best homes for these children."
For many kids, the lack of stability will result in years of trauma.
Saprina Kennedy is trying to adopt one such child, her 12-year-old niece, who before age 4 had already been in foster care after suffering abuse. After she was returned home, in 2008, the then-5-year-old girl was found walking around an ice-covered parking lot without shoes or a coat. Kennedy said the girl was starving and looking for food. She went back to foster care.
The girl has been through 24 foster homes in the past 10 years, Kennedy said.
She is now in a Wisconsin facility, being treated for post-traumatic stress disorder and, as Kennedy put it, "rage."
"She deserves better than what she's gone through," Kennedy said.