When families are unsafe for children, the government intervenes. But who intervenes when the government is the abuser?
A bill approved by the Minnesota Legislature today offers one answer — and it’s on its way to the governor’s desk.
The bipartisan legislation sponsored by state Sen. Karin Housley (R) and Rep. Jessica Hanson (DFL), would establish a central office where children and youth in foster care can turn to for help. Designed to improve accountability, the Office of the Foster Youth Ombudsperson would serve as a resource, investigate complaints and track systemic issues that arise.
“Youth in foster care do not always have a resource or an avenue for intervention when they face abuse, neglect, discrimination or exploitation at the hands of our very own child protection systems,” Hanson said on the House floor Friday. She is the chief author of the House bill, sponsored by 10 other lawmakers.
Roughly two dozen states have established ombuds or child advocacy offices with duties specifically related to children’s services, according to the National Council of State Legislatures. Some states, including Colorado and California, have had such offices for years, allowing children and teens to safely report abusive foster parents, concerns about a caseworker’s handling of their care or housing struggles.
Minnesota’s legislation is backed by Foster Advocates, a St. Paul nonprofit dedicated to organizing with foster youth.
“By establishing an ombudsperson office for fosters we are creating an organizational structure that will create positive change, allow for more capacity to do independent investigations and track areas where significant intervention is needed,” Housley told lawmakers in the Senate.
Those testifying in support of the bill all experienced foster care, and they described feeling unheard and unsupported during their time in the child welfare system.
Ada Smith, 23, testified virtually at a March hearing that her foster parents yelled at her when her infant cried at night. As a foster youth, she said she had to beg for diapers, clothes and formula to provide for her son.
“Throughout my five years in foster care I always prayed for a lifeline,” Smith said. “And I still wonder what it would have been like if I had someone fighting for my safety and stability for my son.”
Since 1991, Minnesota has had an Office of Ombudsperson for Families, an independent office with a mission to ensure that children and families of color are protected by law in proceedings involving public and private agencies. Branches of that office serve Latinos, African Americans and Asian and Pacific Islanders, receiving and reviewing complaints, investigating and making recommendations to remedy issues the families have reported. A separate office works with American Indian families.
But youth advocates say foster youth have not approached the office with their often child-specific needs, and that creating a separate watchdog agency, one that is specifically youth-oriented, is what the state needs.
State Sen. Patricia Torres Ray (DFL) opposed the bill that would create a foster youth ombuds office. Torres Ray, who worked for seven years at the office for families, said she worried about duplication of efforts.
“We’re adding layers of bureaucracy that do not resolve their housing problems, that do not resolve their school problems, that do not resolve their mental health issues,” she said.
Another Minneapolis Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party member, state Sen. Bobby Joe Champion, agreed.
“Simply adding another office doesn’t change a system that is broken,” he said. “We have to have a paradigm shift.” Champion has long advocated for the passage of the Minnesota African-American Family Preservation Act, a bill that would sidestep foster care altogether for many state residents by preventing any unnecessary removal of African American children.
After investigating complaints, the ombudsperson would make recommendations to the agency and send their findings and conclusions to the governor. A board of current and former foster youth, nonprofit professionals, a social worker, a guardian ad litem and an attorney would oversee the ombudsperson.
If signed into law by Gov. Tim Walz (DFL), the bill would provide $775,000 in fiscal year 2023 to create the independent office and the board overseeing the ombudsperson.
In February, Ohio became the latest state to pass legislation to establish an ombuds office. The new resource will be available to Ohio foster children starting May 31.
Advocates for foster youth say an ombuds could have saved Ma’Khia Bryant.
Columbus police officer Nicholas Reardon killed Ma’Khia Bryant, 16, outside of her foster home last year, shooting her four times. Ma’Khia and her younger sister had called 911, begging to be moved, weeks before Ma’Khia’s death. No one listened.
“She could have called this office, and they could have said there’s something going on in this foster home where she feels unsafe, and we want to put her in respite pending an investigation,” Lisa Dickson, spokesperson for the youth-led Alumni of Care Together Improving Outcomes Now, told The Imprint last month. “And she might not have lost her life.”
In Minnesota, Hanson urged colleagues to support her state’s version of an ombuds office for foster youth.
“We need to do this because children in foster care face critically important issues,” she said, “and they deserve to be served and protected like all children in our state.”