Foster care numbers in Minnesota’s most populous county have plunged by half in recent years, new data show, a dramatic downward slide in children removed from their families following allegations of abuse or neglect.
But the recently released Hennepin County Human Services annual report shows a trend of concern to local child welfare professionals: Of those children taken into foster care, they have been increasingly less likely to eventually go home to parents.
“While the declining number of children entering foster care is a positive trend, the share of them returning home afterwards is also declining — and that is a major concern,” the report said.
Children of color are overrepresented in the child welfare system in Hennepin County.
In 2021, about 600 children entered foster care in Hennepin County, according to the report, which was released on July 13. It’s a sharp decline compared with the 1,200 and 1,080 children who entered the child welfare system in 2018 and 2019, respectively.
In 2020 and 2021, social isolation, shuttered schools and fewer mandated reporters of child maltreatment interacting with children contributed to a drop in the number of kids entering foster care across the country. Two years ago, the number of children in government custody dropped by 20,000.
“Among leaders in the field, the concept that foster care numbers are coming down is seen as a good thing. That means that fewer children are being removed from their families,” said John Mattingly, a longtime child welfare consultant and former head of the New York City Administration for Children’s Services.
But the significantly lower entries doesn’t necessarily mean that fewer children are being abused or neglected, he added.
Mattingly said ideally, fewer foster care entries are driven by more plentiful services provided to parents to help them overcome challenges to caring for their children, such as mental health services.
“The question is, are they providing more help, earlier, to families than they used to?” he said. “By helping families sooner, they don’t have to make as many placements because they’ve intervened early enough so that the neglect was not so serious that they had to remove the children.”
Hennepin County Children and Family Services attributes the decrease in foster care entries to its stepped-up efforts to keep more children safely at home with their families whenever possible. Those efforts include providing case management services to families, without placing the children in out-of-home care.
“While the reduced volume during the pandemic is a factor, the trend also demonstrates the county’s commitment to child and family well-being,” the report, signed by Director Kwesi Booker, states. Booker began leading the county’s division of Children and Family Services in January.
Though the number of entries into Hennepin County foster care declined in recent years, the contributing factors did not change. Despite fears that physical abuse would rise as families hunkered down during the pandemic, substance use remained the most common reason children were removed from their homes.
Yet those children who entered foster care due to court findings of maltreatment in the county are increasingly less likely to return home. Compared to 2018, children who were separated from their families were 26% less likely to return. And between 2020 and 2021, reunification rates dropped from about 53% to 44%.
The trend is also apparent on a national scale, accompanied by shuttered courtrooms, backlogged cases and strict timelines to perform court-ordered duties when much of society was shut down due to COVID restrictions.
The causes in Hennepin County are unclear, child welfare officials say. But data and case analysis underway will examine contributing factors.
“It could be more deeply entrenched issues, like access to services or severity of dynamics that brought children into care,” the report states. “It could also be simple association with fewer kids entering care, or a short-term trend that will reverse as the pandemic eases.”
Child welfare expert Mattingly said there are likely several contributing factors.
“If you are removing fewer children, then the ones that you remove should stay in care because they’re more serious cases,” he said.
While reunifications have gone down in Hennepin County, transfers of legal custody to a relative have risen steadily since 2018. Keeping children within their family networks is widely considered the best possible outcome for children who can’t live safely with parents, minimizing the trauma of loss and maintaining vital connections with kin. Court-approved custody transfers also avoid the legal termination of parental rights — a virtually irreversible outcome widely known as “the civil death penalty.”
In Hennepin County, where more than half of the children are white, the system is overwhelmingly composed of American Indian and Black children, who are far more likely to be removed from their homes than white children.
Despite representing less than 1% of the population of children in Hennepin County, American Indian and Alaska Native children made up 13% of those in foster care. And Black children, who make up 20% of children, represented over one-third of foster youth.
The same disparities showed up in the “multiracial” category, where children with combinations of American Indian and Black identities appeared most often. Those children, making up 10% of the general child population, represented 30% of foster youth.
“Beginning with the reports we receive from the community and continuing through our system to out-of-home placement, children of color continue to be overrepresented in child welfare,” county officials said.
These children are also among those less likely to go home to their parents. In 2021, 33% of American Indian/Alaska Native children reunified with their parents, county data show, compared to 45% of children of all other races.
More than half of children in Hennepin County move in with relatives after being removed from home by child protection workers. The agency has worked over the last five years to eliminate shelter foster home designations to reduce trauma by placing children with relatives if they must be separated from their parents.
Under the leadership of Booker, the county plans to expand its reliance on relatives and increase its use of “facilitated family meetings.” The meetings seek to engage family members, including paternal relatives, to develop a collaborative plan for the safety, care and well-being of children.
In 2021, these family meetings increased by 76%, according to county records.
The strategies are part of its shifting approach to working with families, according to Booker’s first annual report as director.
“As director, I’ve named specific priorities for our work: becoming less reactive and more strategic, stabilizing our workforce, decreasing the number of children entering care, improving family-centered practice, and engaging our community — especially individuals with lived experience,” Booker stated.