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A court-ordered evaluation of Hennepin County's foster care system showed gaps ranging from foster parent preparation, barriers in the licensing application process and a need for more social service outreach to communities of color.

Wilder Research spent 18 months analyzing the needs and characteristics of children placed in foster care, interviewed dozens of county staff, experts and foster youths and sent out an online survey that received more than 200 responses from foster parents.

The 139-page report was made public for the first time Thursday to a county advisory committee on children's well-being.

The evaluation was required as part of a landmark agreement from a 2017 class-action federal lawsuit brought by a national child advocacy group, A Better Childhood, on behalf of 10 Minnesota children.

The group accused Hennepin County of operating a "confusing, underfunded and erratic system" that puts children in harm's way by failing to investigate reported abuse and place the children in stable homes.

The lengthy agreement, approved in late 2019, came at a time when the county was overhauling its child-protection system. Worker caseloads were reduced to allow more time to be spent with families, child protection staff was doubled and the county increased spending on child well-being significantly.

Researchers reviewed foster care child data from 2017 to 2019. More than 1,100 children were in foster care and 80% were children of color.

"The analysis provides us with some guidance and supported things we knew anecdotally," said Lisa Bayley, the county's senior policy adviser on child well-being. "The data is two years old and a lot has happened since then."

One of the biggest changes came when St. Joseph's Home for Children in Minneapolis closed earlier this year. The emergency shelter handled the intake for any child in Hennepin County who was removed from their home. It often took days to get the child placed in foster care.

The county now operates its own coordination center with the goal of putting a child directly into an appropriate foster home that meets any special needs or behavioral issues, Bayley said. This requires a lot of upfront work and follows a national trend of no longer placing children in facilities, she said.

"Any time you uproot a child from their family will have a lifetime impact," she said.

A key finding in the report was the county's lack of real time and incomplete data about children in foster care that social workers can access on a secure website, said Stephanie Nelson-Dusek, a research scientist at Wilder.

They did glean from the available data that there was an increase in foster parents who received licenses, and they were able to track the number of children's mental health diagnosis or probation needs. They also found that 51% of children had a sibling who also needed to be placed.

While the county has a goal of licensing foster parents in four months, the researchers found that it took an average of 174 days to approve the application for relatives and 245 days for non-relatives. More than 100 foster parents withdrew their applications each year.

The report found that children in foster care wanted better communication with social workers and for the parents to understand the trauma they've suffered, said Monica Idzelis Rothe, research manager at Wilder.

Foster parents wanted more training to deal with behavioral issues, more information about resources and how to build relationships with a child's birth parents.

One of the report's many recommendations is to slow down the child intake process to allow the foster parent a more thorough understanding of the child's needs.

Bayley agreed that the county also needs to do a better job at connecting foster parents and children to mental health services and provide a navigator to help parents with the license application.

Several times during the presentation, Commissioner Angela Conley stressed the importance of building relationships with community leaders, organizations and trusted messengers in communities of color.

Workers who go into those communities should reflect the population, she said. Building those relationships will help recruit and retain foster parents, she said.

"And I will shout from the mountaintop how important it is to have workers who were a foster child or parent," Conley added.

There has been a tremendous amount of work in the foster care system in the past couple of years and the Wilder report is another tool to keep the positive momentum going, Bayley said.

"Cultural change is hard and it won't flip overnight," she said. "But we are on the right track."

David Chanen • 612-673-4465