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Doing more for foster youth

Posted: Thursday, May 24, 2012

By Minnesota Supreme Court Chief Justice Lorie S. Gildea and
Minnesota Department of Human Services Commissioner Lucinda Jesson

“I want to go to college,” “I want to get married,” “I want to have a family,” “I want to be a social worker someday.”

These are some of the dreams foster youth told us they had in life. We, in social services, the judicial branch and our communities, have a responsibility to make that happen—not only for those we spoke with, but for all 8,000 youth cared for by Minnesota foster families each year. All youth deserve the chance to lead happy, healthy and productive adult lives.

Recognizing the importance of this, we are travelling around the state—to Alexandria, Duluth, Grand Rapids, Redwood Falls, Rochester, Thief River Falls and the Twin Cities—to reinvigorate the Minnesota Children’s Justice Initiative, a statewide collaborative between the Minnesota Department of Human Services and the Minnesota Supreme Court to ensure safe, stable and permanent families for children in foster care. We recognized this a decade ago when we launched this initiative and have made significant improvements since then, but we now must refocus and recommit to this effort. That is why we are meeting with judges, human services directors and foster youth to learn about successes, challenges and ways we can improve outcomes.

Child welfare reforms and improved court oversight have contributed to improved outcomes for children and youth in the foster care system:

  • Nearly 34 percent fewer children and youth are in foster care than 10 years ago.
  • Nearly 80 percent of children and youth who leave foster care are reunified with their families, and most in less than a year.
  • Fewer than 1,000 children and youth are waiting to be adopted, which is nearly half the number of children and youth waiting 10 years ago; and the time they wait for adoption has decreased by nearly half a year.

Although much has been accomplished, there is still much to do. This year, beginning with our regional meetings, the Children’s Justice Initiative teams in counties will focus on four priorities:

Addressing older foster youth’s needs. Child welfare agencies and courts are working together to find alternatives to long-term foster care for youth whenever possible. Yet, for the 500-plus youth who leave foster care each year without a permanent family, we are helping them make plans for their education, housing, employment, access to health care, financial literacy and ongoing support from a caring adult.

Achieving educational success and stability. Children and youth in foster care are at higher risk of poor academic achievement, school instability, dropout rates, disciplinary actions and truancy. We must keep youth in their same school, support their participation in extracurricular activities and support their postsecondary education.

Meeting physical and mental health needs. Children and youth who have experienced trauma are at higher risk of developing physical and mental health problems. We must ensure agency and court oversight for initial health screenings, mental health screenings, follow-up assessments and preventive care to meet their special health and mental health needs.

Finding families. Making diligent efforts to find and engage relatives and other caring adults in care and planning for youth in foster care is a best practice—and it is the law. Teams are implementing proven practices to bring youth together with family and other caring adults to plan for their well-being, safety and permanency; to conduct diligent searches—assisted by new technologies—for relatives; and to ensure a back-up plan is in place if reunification with biological families does not happen.

While we at the state are committed to this, we know that government cannot do it alone. Loving, supportive families more than anything else are able to encourage children’s well-being and success. You can help. Consider becoming a foster parent, adopting a child under state guardianship or making a contribution to the Forgotten Children’s Fund. More information is available on the Minnesota Department of Human Services website at http://mn.gov/dhs/. Please join us. Children are depending on us.