October Allen has been a parent mentor with Minnesota One-Stop for Communities since 2016. She works primarily with Native American families in St. Louis and Carlton counties and manages 20 to 25 cases at a time.
Her relationship with parents usually starts when they arrive at court, often afraid and unsure of what to expect. “A lot of times there’s such fear when it comes to systems,” Allen said. “Fear in itself is often a barrier.”
Allen starts by explaining how the hearings will work and what roles everyone in the court plays. She also helps them build healthy relationships with their social workers, sign up for parenting classes if needed, and find transportation, among other duties.
One-Stop has helped reunite 85 families after a foster care removal since it received an initial investment from the state last year. Now, Minnesota legislators are considering a bill that would continue and augment the program — the bill, HF390, was introduced in the House Jan. 28.
It would appropriate $150,000 a year, starting next year, to the nonprofit Minnesota One-Stop for Communities, which pairs parents with mentors to help them navigate the legal and logistical challenges of the child welfare system with the goal of reuniting them with their children after a foster care removal is made. A similar bill was passed in 2019 for the fiscal years 2020 and 2021; this legislation funds at $150,000 for the next two years and then opens it up for an increase in 2024.
Minnesota state Rep. Jamie Becker-Finn (DFL), who sponsored HF390, said the bill also addresses the racial disparities in the child welfare system. “Our state’s child welfare system has disproportionately impacted — and often harmed — BIPOC [Black, Indigenous and people of color] families by separating children from their parents,” Becker-Finn wrote in an email. “Given this history, it is incredibly important that parents and families are supported as they navigate the process. Utilizing parent mentors is an effective way to do that.”
Larene Randle-Wade, the CEO of Minnesota One-Stop for Communities, shared her own story when she testified in front of the House Health and Human Services Policy Committee in 2019. When the state’s child protection agency removed one of her own children, her family waited days and received little information about what she had to do to reunite with her son. It spurred her to start a nonprofit to help other families like hers.
“Children have people who speak in their best interest, the guardian ad litem, whereas parents have absolutely nothing,” Randle-Wade said. “They don’t have anyone to explain the process or the system to them. There’s lots of jargon and court cases that parents really don’t understand. Parents don’t know what their rights are, don’t know what questions they could be asking.”
Minnesota One-Stop for Communities now employs 10 parent mentors and operates in four counties: Ramsey, Hennepin, St. Louis and Carlton. In addition to funds from the state, the nonprofit has also received funding from Ramsey County and private foundations.
Randle-Wade said the new bill would help the program expand into more counties, including Anoka and Dakota. She would also like to create a mobile crisis team eventually.
One-Stop serves all families but emphasizes Black, brown and Indigenous families, who face a disproportionate number of separations and typically wait longer for reunification. More than half of the families served thus far are Native American or Black families, according to Randle-Wade.
In addition to helping parents navigate the legal process of reunification, One-Stop also connects them with community resources to improve the families’ quality of life. But Randle-Wade said one of the biggest benefits of parent mentors is that they are not part of the child welfare system, but they do have firsthand experience with it and they reflect the families they are serving.
“What’s important is not only do you look like me, but you have some of the same experiences that I have had,” Randle-Wade said. “There is a lack of trust in the state. There’s a lack of trust in the system.”
In a study of the mentorship program conducted by the University of Minnesota, parents said their mentors provided them with psychological support and communication skills. Some also said they believed their cases might not have had the same outcome without their mentor.
“Parent mentors offer hope that traditionally was not there in the child protection system,” Allen said. “I myself grew up in the foster care system, and as an adult I asked my mother why I never went home, and she said she didn’t know that I could. We let these parents know that there is hope that recovery is possible and that children do come home.”