Growing up with four older siblings and an adoptive mom and dad, Misty Coonce played the role of mediator and protector at her home in Hastings, Minnesota. Sometimes she’d take the blame for her siblings’ minor misdeeds. Other times, Coonce, now 39, would simply hear them out when they felt unseen or would mediate squabbles — ever-conscious of how her sisters were feeling.
Coonce would also “soften the blow” when the adults got involved, said her older sister Sabryna Gilbertson, delivering explanations that would ratchet down consequences for everyone involved.
“Having a sister there was like having another warrior or comrade that you don’t have to explain anything to,” said Gilbertson, 43, of Prior Lake. “You just know each other’s heart; it’s the closest connection, and that’s just untouchable.”
Those close to Coonce — the state’s first-ever foster youth ombudsperson — say these are the fundamental skills, along with her personal history and 13 years as a social worker, that she brings to the post. Her newly minted office was created by the Legislature in 2022, following years of activism by the youth-led Foster Advocates organization. Coonce was selected from dozens of applicants, and appointed by Gov. Tim Walz in September. The office is set to begin its work in January.
“Knowing there was a lot of foster youth advocating and putting their voices and hearts out there to ask for this office means it’s needed,” Coonce told The Imprint, in her first press interview since her appointment.
A new watchdog
According to the legislation that created the office, the ombuds was selected as someone who is “highly competent and qualified to work to improve the lives of youth in the foster care system.” The mandate requires direct outreach and assistance with young people wherever they are living — in family foster homes, group homes, residential treatment centers or juvenile facilities.
The new office includes a board that will meet regularly to make recommendations and “continuously” oversee its work, including evaluation of its effectiveness. The 15-member board consists of five current or recent foster youth; four adults who grew up in foster care; a juvenile or family court attorney; a guardian ad litem currently appointed to protect the interests of minors; a social worker; and three nonprofit professionals serving foster youth. All spots on the board have been filled and approved by the governor’s office. Their terms began Nov. 1. Coonce described the board members as “an amazing group of people” that she is excited to meet with.
The Office of the Foster Youth Ombudsperson will operate in its first fiscal year with $842,000 in state general funds, with $759,000 alloted for fiscal year 2025.
‘A complex and imperfect system’
Coonce was born in Arkansas and spent the first year of her life there. She later lived with her mother and father in Olmsted County, Minnesota. But her parents struggled with drug addiction and lost custody of their four daughters when Coonce was pre-school age. The girls spent five years in foster care.
When Coonce was 8 years old, she and her three sisters moved into a family home in the city of Hastings with adoptive parents and another child the couple had adopted the year prior.
“Sometimes I try to explain my story to other people, and they ask, ‘how many brothers and sisters do you have?’” Coonce said. “I usually answer, ‘well four, five, maybe six, seven?’”
She added that she often has difficulty answering the question “due to the complex make-up of my family, and having biological siblings and siblings through adoption.”
“Knowing there was a lot of foster youth advocating and putting their voices and hearts out there to ask for this office means it’s needed.”— Misty Coonce
Coonce became a licensed social worker in 2010 after graduating with a master’s degree in social work from the University of Wisconsin-Madison. She has spent two decades working in nonprofits in Minnesota that serve foster and adoptive families, including seven years with Ampersand Families. Most recently, she was a senior program director with the St. Paul-based nonprofit organization that provides adoption assistance.
“Child welfare is a complex and imperfect system that requires the kind of intention and visioning that Misty undoubtedly offers,” said Stacy Gehringer, a former Ampersand colleague who is now director of outreach for the Center for Advanced Studies in Child Welfare at the University of Minnesota.
In an emailed statement, a representative of Foster Advocates said the group looked forward to “working in deep partnership with Misty and the office on behalf of foster youth in Minnesota.” The organization’s previous executive director praised the decision to select an ombuds with “lived and professional experience.”
Meeting foster youth needs
Coonce’s responsibility as the new ombuds will be weighty.
There are more than 6,800 children and young adults through age 21 in Minnesota’s foster care system and Coonce’s new job will be to respond to their needs, resolving individual cases with her office’s power to subpoena documents, and identifying systemic problems through a report every two years to the governor and ranking state lawmakers.
The concerns she is likely to hear about are myriad: Kids moved too many times among foster care placements; siblings being separated from one another; children losing contact with their parents and adoptions that get “dissolved” — tossing young lives back into uncertainty.
Coonce said she will respond and attempt to meet the needs of “any foster youth who’s experiencing a concern with the care that they’re getting.” Chief among her goals is disseminating information to foster youth through social media and community-based agencies about their rights, and facilitating improved connections with social workers. She’ll reach younger kids through age-appropriate means, like coloring books designed to educate and inform.
Coonce, who currently lives with her partner and two children, has a particular interest in helping foster youth who’ve been separated from their siblings reconnect.
While child welfare systems often struggle to keep large sibling groups together, or decide to separate children when there are supervision concerns, “beyond that, it’s important to keep those sibling relationships alive and nurtured if distance becomes a factor,” Coonce said. “Making sure they’re able to stay connected is something I hope I can help with.”
There are other statewide issues in need of attention. Minnesota currently ranks 17th among the 50 states, with 33% of children in foster care having experienced two or more placements in 2021, according to the Kids Count Data Center, compiled by the Annie E. Casey Foundation.
What’s more, racial disparity in the state is among the highest in the nation. According to Minnesota’s Department of Health Services, in 2020, Indigenous children were 16 times more likely than white kids to enter foster care, and Black children were 2.5 times more likely.
Coonce, who is white, described disproportionality as “such a complicated and layered systemic problem.” But she added that addressing it starts with “acknowledgement.”
The ombuds’ authority
As foster youth ombudsperson, Coonce must establish a complaint process, including how complaints will be made, reviewed and acted upon. The office will examine “the physical placement where the child resides,” and gather any and all documents related to a child’s case.
“The ombudsperson may, at the request of another or on the ombudsperson’s own initiative, investigate any action of an agency or a family foster home, custodian, parent, or facility licensed by the state, including a residential treatment facility and secured detention facility,” state law now specifies.
Key to the office’s authority is its ability to “subpoena any person to appear, give testimony, or produce documents or other evidence that the ombudsperson considers relevant to a matter under inquiry.” The ombuds can also petition a state district court to seek enforcement of a subpoena, and solicit witness testimony.
“It’s important to keep those sibling relationships alive and nurtured if distance becomes a factor.”— Misty Coonce
When kids’ cases appear before a judge, upon a youth’s request, the ombuds can be present at court hearings, as well as at conferences, meetings and other deliberations.
In addition, foster youth must be afforded protection in the new complaint process. Facilities or foster homes “must not open any letter to the ombudsperson from a person at the facility or foster home,” and “must deliver any mail or forward any email from the ombudsperson to a person in the facility or family foster home immediately after the facility or family foster home receives the mail or e-mail,” the founding legislation states.
The law also protects kids brave enough to speak out.
“A facility or family foster home must not punish a person for making a complaint to the ombudsperson,” the new law states. “A facility or family foster home must not unfavorably alter the conditions of a person’s placement as a consequence for making a complaint to the ombudsperson.”
If a complaint is deemed valid, judicial officers, agency heads, the Legislature and the governor will be informed of the ombuds’ recommendations to remedy the issue. The office will produce a report for the governor and ranking legislators every two years.
‘Something we all share’
For her part, Coonce is asking for patience from those who will soon rely on her. Noting that “I’m still learning the ins and outs of working for the state government,” she said it will take some months to get her new office up and running.
Coonce said she understands the urgency of need.
“Even though I have experience as a foster youth, I don’t know every single foster youth’s story,” she said. “But those experiences of having a system involved in your life in a very important way — that’s something we all share and something that I hope I can connect with youth on.”
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