See more of the story

On Sundays, you’ll find them here, standing and grasping hands around the kitchen table.

It’s supper time in the Bell household, and that means saying grace before tucking in to a soul food feast. The weekly ritual attracts a revolving cast of grown kids, 16 grandkids, adopted family and friends long considered kin.

And for decades, foster children have joined this circle, too. Under the care of Curtis and Darlene Bell, more than 30 children have come to this roomy house in Brooklyn Park, celebrated birthdays, spent holidays and shared in family traditions like Sunday dinner.

“We lose track of how many kids call us mom and dad,” said Curtis Bell, 57.

Those who know the Bells say they are an example of foster care done right at a time when the state’s child welfare system is grappling with persistent challenges, including a shortage of families to provide quality care.

A growing cohort of counties, state officials, nonprofits, private foster care agencies and families including the Bells are working to change this system by shifting the focus to parenting. Minnesota now numbers among 10 states where the Quality Parenting Initiative (QPI) has taken root, promoting the idea that children need families, not beds.

The initiative was created and launched in 2008 by the California-based Youth Law Center, a public interest law firm focused on foster care and youth justice issues. Minnesota participants are now working to tackle common problems in foster care, from smoothing the transition for children between placements to bolstering communication between foster homes and birth families.

The hope is that changes made through QPI may help recruit and retain more families like the Bells, proponents say.

“I think [the Bells] have been doing QPI for a long time without knowing it,” said Kirsten Anderson, executive director of AspireMN, a children’s advocacy group involved in QPI. “Now they’re helping to lead this in a coordinated way, which is a beautiful thing.”

The work in Minnesota is voluntary, spearheaded by nonprofits and private foster agencies. That makes the initiative more grass roots than in other states, where it’s often a project of public agencies, said Carole Shauffer, a senior director at the Youth Law Center.

“There’s just a lot of commitment across the state, which is really interesting when there is no state incentive to do it,” she said.

St. David’s Center for Child and Family Development, a Minnetonka-based nonprofit, first found out about QPI three years ago and then partnered with private foster care agencies through AspireMN to bring the initiative to Minnesota.

‘Grounded set of changes’

Officials from the state’s Department of Human Services and at least six counties have since become involved, among other groups. At the October kickoff event, more than 200 people met to begin developing strategies for reform, including ways to help birth families, relatives and foster parents better connect.

“Our goal is to partner with the birth family,” said Kate Rickord of St. David’s Center.

Organizers have already mapped out several priorities for 2018. They include placing a comfort call to birth families within 24 hours of a child entering a foster home and arranging a meeting within the first few weeks between birth and foster families.

“This is a very grounded set of changes,” said Anderson of AspireMN.

Proponents say the initiative may help remedy some of the problems plaguing Minnesota’s child welfare system, including high rates of children re-entering the system.

More than 16,000 young people were placed in foster care or other out-of-home placements in 2017, according to the Department of Human Services. The number of children in Minnesota’s foster care system on an average day lept by nearly 12 percent last year, from about 8,850 in 2016 to nearly 9,900 in 2017.

As the number of children entering the system continues to surge, the foster family shortage has become more pressing, state officials say.

“It’s very urgent,” said Jim Koppel, the state’s assistant commissioner for children and family services. “We need foster families, in part to ensure there is a right match and a right culture.”

‘Born to do this’

Curtis and Darlene Bell say their childhoods kindled an early interest in being foster parents.

Before coming to live with his grandmother in Minnesota, Curtis Bell was in foster care in Chicago for a short time after his mother died.

Darlene Bell’s journey began watching her own father and mother, Robert and Lenora Bogan. For as long as she can remember, her parents have taken in relatives at their Minneapolis home, cared for foster children and mentored countless young people along the way — including her husband when he was a teenager.

“It’s part of my genetics,” Darlene Bell said. “We were born to do this.”

The Bells have juggled full-time jobs with raising six children of their own, most of whom are now grown. That’s on top of their community work in Brooklyn Park, from organizing local Black History Month events to mentoring young people to volunteering with the police department. Brooklyn Park police gave the Bells a community service award last year for their city involvement.

When foster children come into their home, the Bells often throw a welcome party.

“We don’t even call them our foster kids. When we’re out, we just call them our grandchildren,” Darlene Bell said. “It’s just all about family.”

They also try to get the children involved in after-school activities like dance, sports or swimming, which they largely pay for out-of-pocket, Curtis Bell said.

“The Bells really exemplify what kind of parenting we want to get to in the whole state,” said Mary Lennick, executive director of Family Alternatives, a Minneapolis-based private foster care agency that licenses the Bells.

Some children leave letters when they leave. Two recently adopted siblings gave thank-you notes to “Gram” and “Papa” — what all the kids call the Bells. And there’s always a standing invitation to Sunday dinner.

On a recent Sunday afternoon, fried chicken, macaroni and cheese, cornbread and other homemade fare sat in the kitchen, an enticing welcome for visiting kin.

“Y’all kids hungry?” Curtis Bell asked the assembled group, which included several current foster children. Then, he prayed.

“Thank you,” he began, “for family.”

Hannah Covington • 612-673-4751