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For more than a century, thousands of children in Minnesota’s largest county stayed at St. Joseph’s Home for Children after police or social workers removed them from their homes.

Now, Catholic Charities is effectively closing St. Joe’s, a former orphanage in Minneapolis that’s become synonymous over the years with child safety.

The nonprofit announced Tuesday that it’s shutting down two remaining child protection programs — an emergency shelter, in August, and an intake program, by the end of the year. Demand for those services has dwindled as Hennepin County overhauled child protection services, and the child welfare system has shifted to keep children in their homes, with relatives or in foster care, not institutional facilities.

“This has been, for all of us at Catholic Charities, a very difficult transition” because of how “entwined it is in our history,” said Tim Marx, CEO of Catholic Charities of St. Paul and Minneapolis. “But we also know it’s kind of a sign of progress and the right thing to do.”

The closures mark an end of an era for the storied orphanage that dates back to 1886, with expansive brick buildings on a grassy 12-acre plot near E. 46th Street and Chicago Avenue in south Minneapolis. The former Catholic boys’ home once drew Babe Ruth, and the Minneapolis Lakers practiced in its gym in the 1950s. Over the years, Vikings players and volunteers would show up to play with kids or help celebrate birthdays and other milestones.

When Keith Kozerski tells strangers he works at St. Joe’s, he often runs into adults who say they were a “St. Joe’s kid,” with vivid memories from their time there.

“For some kids, it’s the nicest place [they’ve been],” said Kozerski, the nonprofit’s director of child and family services, as he walked into a weight room with a punching bag for kids to let off steam.

But, he added, the stigma of riding in the back of a squad car or with a social worker to a building with cinder block walls and sparse dormlike rooms was traumatic, and the process hadn’t changed much since the 1970s.

“It’s not the best our community can do,” Kozerski said. “It’s like the emergency room: you’re not glad you’re there but you’re glad they’re there for you.”

St. Joe’s filled a need as a last resort for children, said Traci LaLiberte, executive director of the University of Minnesota’s Center for Advanced Studies in Child Welfare. But over time, the child welfare system came to see congregate care as disruptive and bringing children to a relative or foster care resulting in fewer moves and a consistent caregiver.

“St. Joe’s has been around forever,” said LaLiberte, whose own great-uncle lived at St. Joe’s 80 years ago. “It’s a huge milestone to close this down. For years, we’ve been working toward this as a field.”

Hennepin County still takes children to other smaller shelters, and elsewhere in Minnesota, some counties also have short-term shelters for children in child protective services. But St. Joe’s was always the largest, most storied place.

“[Catholic Charities] really worked themselves out of a service,” LaLiberte said. “They should get some credit for recognizing it was the right thing to do.”

A new system

The closures mean Catholic Charities will no longer have child protection service programs after many years of being contracted by Hennepin County, the only county in the state to partner with a nonprofit on intake services.

In 2018, the nonprofit closed St. Joe’s 30-bed residential treatment program, but it continued to keep the 21-bed emergency shelter and the central intake — likened to a 24/7 emergency room for child protection cases, where children would get a health assessment before it was determined where to place them.

In 2017-2018, more than 800 children passed through St. Joe’s doors for intake or to stay up to 90 days in the shelter. By last year, that number dropped in half. The county paid Catholic Charities $3.2 million in 2019 to run the two programs.

A children’s day treatment mental health program that used to be at St. Joe’s was moved to a school. So now, only about a third of the buildings at St. Joe’s are being used by staff.

Also, fewer children are ending up there. After a string of child deaths and maltreatment reports in Hennepin County, the county launched a new model, boosting staffing and decreasing caseloads. Within two years, the county increased the number of foster children placed in permanent homes and by 2018 more children left the child welfare system than entered it.

“We have a better system now,” said Hennepin County Commissioner Mike Opat, who heads a child well-being advisory committee. “It’s a kinder, hopefully less traumatic, system for kids, and so that’s an achievement.”

Next steps

This week, five children, ages 8 to 14, are living at St. Joe’s shelter and Catholic Charities will work to move them to new homes by August. The county is still exploring what to do with central intake when it closes at the end of the year. The closure of both programs also cuts 37 full-time jobs.

While St. Joseph’s Home for Children, as it was traditionally known, is ending, Catholic Charities will still own and operate the property, which includes Hope Street, an emergency shelter and transitional housing for homeless young adults, 18 to 22.

Marx said Catholic Charities needs to “reimagine” the future of the old institutional buildings, which have a health clinic, gym and cafeteria. But it’s too soon to say whether the site will be repurposed or sold and redeveloped.

“I think it’s a significant milestone in the community’s history with respect to the evolution of how we work with troubled children,” Marx said, “and have gotten more sophisticated in how we do it.”