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Desperate to find homes for soaring numbers of foster care children, Hennepin County is going to new lengths to recruit potential parents, turning to a digital campaign for the first time.

Instead of traditional ads on bus benches or billboards, the county is ramping up its plea online with new videos and digital ads on sites like Facebook, Instagram, Pandora and YouTube — all to tug on the heartstrings of residents to foster or adopt a child.

“Families aren’t stepping up to meet the demand,” said Jamie Zwilling, who headed up the new campaign. “Putting a face to it is really powerful.”

About a quarter of Minnesota’s children in foster care are in Hennepin County. And the number of children placed in foster care or in other out-of-home placements has surged, at 2,300 kids in 2016. The number of children waiting to be adopted has also nearly quadrupled from 2009 to 2016, reaching the highest number in recent years.

“We’ve made huge strides of bringing families in, but it just seems to be not enough,” said Brenda Brisley, who recruits foster care and adoption families. “The need is so great.”

As a result, foster care costs are soaring, expected to top $40 million this year — a $6 million rise from last year. That’s unsustainable long-term, county leaders say, even for Minnesota’s largest and wealthiest county.

That’s why, as the county seeks foster care families to help with the immediate crisis, county leaders are also overhauling the system long-term in a $26 million multiyear plan to add staff and new programs. The mission of the county’s new child well-being plan is to connect families to services like mental health earlier instead of waiting to intervene after abuse happens. Over time, the county hopes it will help shrink the number of child protection reports and thus the number of children in need of foster care.

Until then, the county is confronting the current rising number of child protection reports, with 20,000 reports in 2016 — a record high. County officials say it’s likely due to state changes that have led to screening in more reports and the increasing community awareness and media coverage about child abuse and neglect.

“That’s great the community is more aware, but we also need them to step up in other ways,” Brisley said.

‘These kids ... need us’

Scrutiny on the county’s child protection system also continues to intensify. A lawsuit filed this week accused the county and state of failing to place children in stable homes, asking for heightened recruitment of foster care homes.

Now that’s just what Hennepin County is doing. Since launching the digital campaign to recruit more foster parents through targeted digital ads last summer, the county has seen attendance at information sessions for prospective families nearly double. And so far this year, the county has had a 60 percent increase in foster care applications.

Jen Baumgarten, 38, of St. Louis Park didn’t need any persuading to foster twin babies, picking them up at the hospital Thursday.

“There’s nothing more rewarding,” she said, holding a bottle for one of the babies as the other slept. “On the hardest of moments, I wouldn’t change a thing — even if we only slept three hours last night.”

Two “It’s a boy” blue balloons decked her living room, now piled with baby toys and children’s books as Baumgarten beamed over the two preemies, still tiny at 1 month old. She used to work in child protection in another state, so she saw firsthand the dire need for foster care families. A year ago, the Edina teacher became a foster care parent to a now 15-month-old boy. And when his mother had twins, she was ready to help.

“This is the most critical stage of life for these two babies, and I get to help,” she said as the babies cooed and stretched. “These kids and their families need us.”

Last week, Baumgarten packed bags of extra baby clothes and other items donated to her to pass on to other new foster care parents — something that Brisley and other county workers hope to see more of.

“We need to find families,” Brisley said. “It’s not just about placing kids in a bed, but finding a home that will meet their needs.”

Kelly Smith • 612-673-4141

Twitter: @kellystrib