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A culturally specific group home, designed for black teenage boys tangled in the juvenile justice and child protection systems, will open this spring in St. Paul.

Ramsey County closed its Boys Totem Town juvenile-detention campus last year, calling it an outdated model, and recruited the Minneapolis-based nonprofit Rebound to open the six-bed home on St. Paul's West Side. Rebound is buying a $225,000 tax-forfeited property on Belvidere Street for the home.

County leaders said keeping troubled youth in the community, with the understanding that race and culture matter, is the best way to serve them. The county has signed a one-year agreement with Rebound with an option to renew for up to four years.

"We didn't have a lot of services for African-American boys and girls in Ramsey County. We knew we had to develop more therapeutic residential services," said Anne Barry, county social services director.

Rebound, founded by Minneapolis social worker and attorney Carmeann Foster, operates two licensed group homes for black teens in north Minneapolis and has ongoing contracts with Hennepin and Ramsey counties.

Teens in those programs have round-the-clock care by a mostly black staff, with weekly counseling, community-service outings and events celebrating black culture. For instance, each year the teens take a bus tour of historically black colleges.

"There is something important about seeing yourself represented in higher education," Foster said.

Ramsey County also has signed an agreement with another provider, Journey of Hope Community Housing, that's run by Sharon and Jason McPipe. They plan to open a four-bed group home in St. Paul for black teens this year.

"Family, community and culture matter in the lives of all our children," said Ramsey County Board Chairwoman Toni Carter, who has championed the shift to community-based programs. "We're working to positively support these young folks to help them heal, grow and prosper."

Initial efforts to set up culturally specific programs are aimed at black families.

That's because black youths in Ramsey County are nearly five times more likely than white youths to be placed in out-of-home settings, according to a county report. Such placements can be made as far away as Duluth or Moorhead, or in some cases even Texas and Utah.

Taking struggling kids away from family and friends only compounds trauma, said LaRone Greer, a planner with Ramsey County Social Services who recruited Rebound to St. Paul. Community-based programs help maintain those connections and lead to better outcomes, he said.

"The key component is keeping families together," Greer said. "We want the child to know this is a family opportunity to connect and heal."

Closing Boys Totem Town and relying on smaller community-based programs meant giving up some control and acknowledging that county staffers don't always have all the answers.

Hennepin County, which first hired Rebound in 2015, is on a similar learning curve as Ramsey County regarding community-based programs, said Paul Lennander, Hennepin County's human services program manager.

Lennander said Rebound and Foster have been good partners for Hennepin County. About 70 teens stayed at Rebound's group homes in 2018 and 2019. Foster, he said, "is really passionate about this group of kids and how to serve them best in the community."

Foster, 33, started her career as a social worker and county program coordinator. As coordinator of Dakota County's Juvenile Detention Alternatives Initiative, she tried to forge partnerships with community providers but often struggled to find resources.

Foster, who has a law degree and master's in social work, researched ways to change law and policy to improve outcomes for kids of color who were caught in the court system. She used a Bush Foundation fellowship in 2016 to study racial disparities in the legal system and came to realize, she said, that the most acute need was at the community-service provider level, especially for children of color.

"I decided to become the community member I was looking for," she said.

She founded Rebound while on maternity leave in 2014. Her family moved into her mother's basement in 2015 so they could turn their north Minneapolis home into Jordan House, a group home for black boys. She opened Naima House for black girls, also in north Minneapolis, in 2018.

Rebound now has about 22 employees and reported $1.1 million in revenue in 2018, according to the latest available nonprofit tax filing.

It's like 'a blended family'

Many of the teens who stay at Rebound's two homes are from the neighborhood, so they can stay connected to family and their community. Kids learn cognitive-behavioral strategies as part of the program and apply them in real-world settings. Foster said her staff spends a lot of time reaching out to the families, sharing successes and inviting them to dinners and events.

"It's like we are a blended family. We are both parenting these kids," Foster said.

Ramsey County Commissioner Trista MatasCastillo said that she and the rest of her board colleagues strongly support the shift from institutions like Totem Town to community programs like Rebound's.

"Everyone knows the recidivism rates in an institution like Boys Totem Town is super high. Kids don't have the community support and they never learn how to live in a family and in their own community," MatasCastillo said.

She added that Foster, who was in her Bush Fellow class, "is a mom of boys who really quickly realized our black boys need us. They need black moms and black dads to say, 'This is how you live your life.' "

Therapist Cedric Weatherspoon, who counsels teens at both the Jordan and Naima houses, said sending troubled kids away compounds trauma.

"When you are incarcerating kids, it delays them. It slows their development down and they can't catch up," he said.

On the other hand, he said, keeping kids in the community and near family helps reduce trauma and gives them a better chance of success. And programs like Foster's that acknowledge and support cultural identity, including the challenges and racism black youth face, is critical.

"She understands the disparities we face in the African-American community," Weatherspoon said.

Shannon Prather • 651-925-5037