Plan focuses on substance use and new parents, passes over Indigenous-based program
Children are best served when raised by their families.
That’s the opening sentence of Minnesota’s Department of Human Services plan for its child welfare system which, under federal law, must commit to targeted efforts that avoid family separation through foster care. Reporting to the federal government last month in its Family First Prevention Services Act report, the state agency called this its “moral and ethical obligation.”
In Minnesota, where more than 80% of the child population is white, Black and Indigenous populations are the most unfairly impacted by long-standing practice. In the third paragraph of its 56-page report, Minnesota officials make a bold assertion for an official document headed for the federal government’s Children’s Bureau: “Historical and current systemic, institutional, interpersonal and individual racism, and associated violence has resulted in intergenerational trauma creating additional, and sometimes insurmountable barriers towards becoming thriving families.”
The document continues with even more blunt language.
“The child welfare system has racist foundations, and has often been a source of trauma for families and communities, especially for American Indian/Alaskan Native, African American/Black, and those identifying as two or more race families and communities.” It concludes that “poverty and lack of resources” draw these Minnesotans into the child welfare system and it vows to marshal state, county, tribal, and community agencies to focus on “providing services so children can remain at home, or if necessary, can remain in the least restrictive placement setting, when possible, providing supports so families can thrive.”
Under the 2018 act referred to as Family First, states no longer receive foster care funds only after they have removed a child from home. Instead, federal dollars provided under the Title IV-E Social Security Act can now also be used by states to prevent that outcome, addressing whatever needs families may have that brought them to the attention of authorities in the first place.
Submitted in September and approved last month, Minnesota’s plan for foster care prevention followed extensive information-gathering and consulting with child welfare experts from official as well as community backgrounds.
But in the end, the state sought approval for just two of the dozens of programs eligible for federal funds. According to an Imprint analysis of 27 plans nationwide made public to date, some states deploy as many as 10 programs to prevent family separation whenever possible. Just three states included only two programs, like Minnesota.
And despite the state’s exceptionally high rates of removing Indigenous children from their homes, Minnesota officials did not commit to an evidence-based Indigenous parenting-support model used across the country known as Family Spirit — noting only that they plan to explore the program further.
Minnesota’s plan for foster care prevention followed extensive information-gathering, but in the end sought approval for just two of the dozens of programs eligible for federal funds.
Kirsten Anderson, the executive director of AspireMN, a statewide association of child and family service providers, acknowledged the relatively low number of prevention programs in the plan, and noted the planning process has been challenging.
“Minnesota has taken longer than many other states and is much more minimally focused on implementing the prevention-service side,” she said.
A spokesperson for the Department of Human Services said in an email sent to The Imprint that the state has other funding sources it relies upon for foster care prevention, in addition to the Title IV-E federal money available.
“For example, Minnesota’s Medicaid program is robust and offers coverage for services and programs that other states do not,” the statement read, noting that “Medicaid is the primary payer ahead of any Title IV-E benefit that might exist.”
The state agency also said it is working with lawmakers and community, county and tribal stakeholders as the state “moves to a greater focus on prevention services.”
But having watched the planning process unfold, Anderson said Minnesota has “strategically selected” a minimal number of practices that prevent foster care, in part due to concerns that monitoring requirements for families accessing services may lead more families into “our formal system.”
The department spokesperson noted the agency is aware of such concerns from “community members,” but said there was no reluctance to offer services to families at risk of entering the foster care system.
“The number of services selected does not reflect these concerns,” the emailed statement read.
Focus on substance use and new parents
Minnesota joins more than 30 states and tribes that have finalized plans with the federal government to meet standards set by the Family First Prevention Services Act.
Historically, the Title IV-E federal entitlement program has been designated only for foster care placements and assistance to adoptive families. But under Family First, states with an approved plan can receive matching funds for mental health services, substance use treatment and parenting support services that prevent the need for foster care.
The law also limited the use of federal dollars for congregate-care placements such as group homes or residential treatment facilities. Federal money can only be used for these placements for two weeks, with some exceptions.
Additionally, programs that receive federal funds must be approved by a federal clearinghouse that reviews the evidence base for the service being provided. Programs analyzed by the clearinghouse receive one of four ratings: “well-supported,” “supported,” “promising,” “or does not currently meet criteria.”
To craft its prevention plan, Minnesota state officials met with tribal and county agencies, court officials, parents and foster youth. The plan relies on two programs that are rated “well-supported”: Motivational Interviewing and Parents as Teachers. While these programs can apply to all child welfare cases, the focus is on new parents and those who struggle with drug use — a common driver of entry into foster care.
The Department of Human Services already integrates some use of these models, and the plan is to use the new federal funds to expand their reach statewide. Workers who deploy “motivational” interview techniques with parents and children hope to gain better information from them and establish trust in the social service agency overseeing family reunification.
Department staff will also focus on implementing Parents as Teachers, a home-visiting program designed to improve parenting skills for new and expectant parents and prevent child maltreatment.
Before these two programs were selected, work groups advising the Department of Human Services recommended the inclusion of mental health programs, such as cognitive behavior therapy providers. But the department did not include such therapy models after determining they were billable under Minnesota’s Medicaid program.
Indigenous programs still left out
Minnesota’s Indigenous population is among the most impacted by foster care and family separation of all groups in the nation. American Indian children here are 16 times more likely than white children to be removed from their homes, according to state data.
In their report last month, state officials note these children require special attention. Under the 1978 Indian Child Welfare Act, foster care agencies must ensure that tribal members are considered a priority for placement of children removed from their homes, in addition to other protections for Indigenous children and families.
Minnesota officials highlight that exceptional status in their prevention plan, stating: “It should be noted that American Indian/Alaskan Native tribes have a unique political relationship with the federal government, creating an equal status with the state.”
And contrary to allegations in a lawsuit now before the Supreme Court in the Brackeen v. Haaland case, state officials go on to note that the “unique political status” of tribal people in this country “is not based on race. Tribes are recognized as sovereign nations and membership is a political status, not race-based.” In acknowledgement of that sovereignty, “the department utilizes a government-to-government consultation process” when it comes to child welfare cases, the foster care prevention plan states.
Yet when it comes to preventing the removal of children from their homes, the Department of Human Services plan does not include reliance on Family Spirit — a well-regarded program that is the only clearinghouse-approved foster care prevention service grounded in Indigenous culture.
Family Spirit is a partnership between Navajo, White Mountain Apache and San Carlos Apache tribal communities and the Johns Hopkins Center for American Indian Health that is used in more than 130 tribal, rural and urban communities across more than 20 states. It provides mothers ages 24 and younger with one-on-one parenting training in their homes, guiding them to provide consistent and responsive care, avoid drug use and addiction, and learn coping skills to deal with life’s stressors.
“the culturally specific programs are the ones that really are impactful and most successful for families.”— Laura Newton, the Minneapolis American Indian Center
Family Spirit draws on the wisdom of trusted community members to deliver the in-home services as “paraprofessional” mothers from tribal communities who have lived through similar circumstances. Research shows that mothers who have been through the program report lower stress levels, reduced depression and a decline in substance use. Children were less likely to suffer behavioral problems.
Under federal law, half of a state’s spending for foster care prevention must be used for programs that have been deemed “well-supported” by the research clearinghouse.
And in a nod to Family Spirit, Minnesota officials point out that while the program was deemed “promising” but not “well-supported” by research, the state will continue to revise its Family First prevention plan. In an emailed statement, the Department of Human Services described Family Spirit as “a key prevention strategy we are planning on exploring with community and Tribes.”
Laura Newton, a lineal descendant of the Lac Courte Oreilles Tribe and director of family services at the Minneapolis American Indian Center, oversees early intervention and child welfare services. One of the center’s programs is Bright Beginnings, a project that offers culturally-based teachings for American Indian women who are pregnant or are new mothers and are at high risk of substance use disorder.
Bright Beginnings is among the programs that are ineligible for federal funding under Minnesota’s foster care prevention plan, because it lacks the required scientific evidence base, despite its promise for participants. The program connects women with cultural teachings and support from elders and other members of their communities — many of whom have survived and overcome the historical weight of family separation through Indian boarding schools and forced assimilation.
“Those programs have historically been what we see as the most helpful and most successful for people once they are able to tap into learning more about their culture,” Newton said. “It just opens up the door for them to have the kind of healing that they need.”
Experts in child welfare and Indigenous rights told The Imprint last year that many programs best-serving Native families have not met the time-consuming and costly requirements necessary for approval from the research clearinghouse. As a result, they are unable to draw on federal funds to prevent family separation.
“Culturally based programming is what is most successful for American Indian families and children,” Newton said. “We know anecdotally and through narratives as well as data that the culturally specific programs are the ones that really are impactful and most successful for families.” But too often, she added, “those programs are not being authorized under Family First because they didn’t qualify as evidence-based.”
Newton said the Department of Human Services and tribal members have met with federal staff to express the urgent need to find alternative ways to recognize culturally specific services as evidenced-based.
Minnesota’s report to the Children’s Bureau acknowledged the challenges that these programs face under the standards set by Family First Prevention Services Act (FFPSA).
The language of the 2018 federal law “creates barriers for communities that use traditional cultural healing practices that do not meet evidence-based standards as defined under FFPSA, but are known to be effective by communities that utilize them,” the plan states, noting: “Staff will continue to advocate for federal change supporting tribal culturally based prevention services and explore opportunities to support traditional cultural healing practices.”