Minnesota child welfare leaders have been meeting with community stakeholders and advocates on establishing a new foster care prevention plan, built around the use of new federal funding available for that goal.
But many are concerned that the strict rules around those federal dollars, and the state child welfare agency’s hesitance to incorporate community ideas, mean the plan won’t address one of Minnesota’s most glaring child welfare issues: racial disproportionality.
In Minnesota, Native American children are 16.8 times as likely to experience foster care than white children, and Black children are 2.6 times as likely. For every three white kids in care, there are seven Black, 17 biracial and 30 Native youth.
The fear is that while the new federal funds are meant to prevent the use of foster care in some child welfare cases, the money can only be used for programs that pass a high bar of evidence. That requires the kind of long-term, gold standard evaluations that cost too much for small organizations that might have a strong bond in Minnesota communities.
“This does not address the needs for culturally specific services and practices, including those used in the American Indian and African American communities,” said the Minnesota Department of Human Services (DHS) of the Family First Act, in an emailed statement last month.
Community leaders agreed, but some feel that DHS has not been open to incorporating their ideas into a bigger prevention plan that goes beyond what the federal money can pay for.
“The reality is the only thing that’s going to address these inequities are those with the political will to buck the tradition, who are willing to think outside the box and humanize the people that they’re serving again and come out of the notion that the state or big brother knows best,” said Nick Muhammad, executive director of the Black Civic Network.
The Family First Prevention Services Act became federal law in 2018, and will take effect in all states by October of 2021. The law for the first time permits states to use the federal entitlement program for child welfare – previously reserved for foster care and adoption costs – to prevent the removal of children who are deemed to be at imminent risk of entering foster care.
But the funds can only be used for services that have received high marks from an evidence-based clearinghouse established as part of the law. And that means for many culturally specific programs to be part of the new prevention plan in Minnesota, the state will have to find other ways to pay for it.
Ideally programs included in the clearinghouse will address the specific needs of these families, says Kirsten Anderson, executive director of AspireMN, which has been working with counties and Minnesota DHS on the prevention plan. Among the programs AspireMN recommends to be included in the state’s prevention services proposal is the Family Spirit Program, designed specifically for Native American families. The program is used in 16 states, including in Minnesota, but it has not yet been reviewed by the federal clearinghouse set up to approve Family First services.
“The clearinghouse is really oriented to those practices that are very clearly clinical in nature,” Anderson said, “whereas many of the services we would like to see in the state of Minnesota are more of the family support, kinship navigator services that are not as easily measurable from that kind of clinical, data-driven standpoint.”
Angie Thies, a policy fellow at the Minnesota Association of County Social Service Administrators who has focused on the state’s implementation of the Family First Act, said another challenge is that Minnesota is one of 13 states with a child welfare system administered by counties and supervised by the state, rather than administered by the state. This means that the needs and interests of 87 different counties are in play as the state develops its single plan for federal approval, which the counties will be responsible for delivering.
Members of the association are working with the Minnesota DHS to draft that five-year prevention services plan, which involves consultation with communities of color and Native American tribes. But according to one county administrator, it hasn’t been enough.
“We have some [community] stakeholders sitting on the board alongside us, but I still don’t know if it was enough,” said Karen Sanness, the Health and Human Services director for Winona County and part of the team working with DHS to approve the final plan before it is submitted to the federal government. “We don’t have enough of our communities of color at the table to really provide that guidance as much as we would like.”
Muhammad, of the Black Civic Network, is one of those community members at the table, representing African descendants of slavery and Black families. He says the problem is not so much that there isn’t enough representation, but rather there is unwillingness from DHS to engage them and veer from “business as usual.”
For Muhammad, negotiations about the prevention plan came down to a conflict between those wanting to preserve the status quo and those looking for real change in the system to combat disparities.
“The state needs to yield thought leadership … to the community and actually be malleable enough to incorporate the ideas and the vision of the community into the policy and the protocols,” Muhammad said. “That’s what’s missing.”
This summer, the state will also make available the process for group residential homes to become Qualified Residential Treatment Programs (QRTPs). Under Family First, states will not receive federal funding for such programs for more than two weeks per child unless they qualify as a QRTP and meet certain requirements, such as having a registered nursing staff on call at all times. In order to draw down the prevention dollars from the federal government, states must meet the requirements for QRTPs by Oct. 1.
As of now, Minnesota’s residential programs don’t know how they will be impacted by Family First and whether they will be able to qualify as QRTPs. Suzanne Arntson, the child welfare manager for Scott County Human Services, said one of her bigger worries is how this change will impact county budgets if the facilities can no longer receive the Title IV-E funding.
Asked if she thought some residential programs that don’t qualify as QRTPs would shut down, she said, “We would obviously be very careful about the decisions to disrupt a child or a young person’s placement, but then the fiscal impact to counties becomes even greater.”
Minnesota has been working toward placing fewer children in group homes and corporate foster care in recent years – the percentage of foster youth living in group settings declined from 24% in 2010 to 12% in 2019, according to federal data – but many still use those services. In 2017, more than 3,000 children in the state experienced group care.
AspireMN and the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) Minnesota have been working together to make sure that families with a child who needs residential treatment can still get it after the Family First Act goes into effect. Anderson hopes to see a few specific programs that address this need make it in the clearinghouse. One is called Collaborative Intensive Bridging Services, or CIBS, which is an intensive treatment program for children that combines in-home therapy and residential treatment facility placement. Another is Intensive Treatment in Foster Care, which provides mental health services for children in foster care.
A third piece of Family First offers a 50-50 split with states on kinship navigator programs, one-stop shops for kin caregivers that can help steer them to financial help and other critical supports.
The offer is limited to navigator models that are approved by the evidence-based clearinghouse, and to date, no existing program has passed that test. But during this fiscal year, as part of the federal COVID-19 relief bills, the evidence requirement has been dropped and navigators can be 100% supported with federal dollars.
Minnesota currently does not have any kinship navigator programs in operation. Several years ago, there was an organization called the Minnesota Kinship Caregivers Association, but it dissolved in 2013.
Lutheran Social Service of Minnesota took over some elements of the organization, including the warmline for kinship support. Patrice O’Leary, the associate vice president of family services at the organization, says more support is needed, however.
O’Leary said she is optimistic about Family First, but she sees it as more of a step in the right direction toward equity rather than a solution in and of itself for Minnesota.
“I think it’s really been clear that there’s a lot of desire for this to fix all the things that we would want to see go better in child welfare, and the act itself simply will not do that,” O’Leary said. “I think that continuing that conversation will be a really important element.”
Minnesota is running against the clock to submit a prevention services plan. Family First was signed into law in 2018, but states were given the option of delaying on implementation until the fiscal year that begins this October.
Ten states and the District of Columbia have been approved for prevention services so far, and another eight states and two tribes have submitted plans and are awaiting word. Minnesota DHS plans to submit theirs by July 1, and it may take several months to be approved.