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More relatives could provide foster care under proposed reforms

Foster children who remain in the care of relatives and stay connected to their families have more stable placements, higher high school graduation rates, lower risks of mental health disorders, and experience less trauma.

But family members can be prevented from providing this invaluable care because of past mistakes that have nothing to do with their ability to care for children.

“Family foster homes are not a business. They should be a safe haven for children who cannot live at home,” said Rep. Athena Hollins (DFL-St. Paul).

She sponsors HF1287, which aims to remove barriers to kinship placements that disproportionately impact people of color and bring foster home licensing standards more in line with current adoption standards and federal policy.

It was approved as amended 18-0 by the House Human Services Finance and Policy Committee Tuesday, and referred to the House Judiciary Finance and Civil Law Committee.

A companion, SF1558, is sponsored by Sen. Julie Rosen (R-Vernon Center) and awaits action by the Senate Human Services Reform Finance and Policy Committee.

Under current law, foster care licensing standards can create more barriers than adoption standards, which make family reunification difficult and don’t necessarily ensure the well-being of children, Hollins said.

“Indiscretions of the past do not reflect abilities of today,” said Kate Rickord, senior director of foster care and adoption services for St. David’s Center and a representative of ASPIRE Minnesota.

She described the case of one grandfather, who was barred from providing care for his grandchildren because, 25 years before, he stole checks and a vehicle from his own parents.

Alexis Oberdorfer, president of the Children’s Home Society of Minnesota, described the difficulty and strain of securing exceptions for an aunt to take care of her toddler niece and nephew because of a 15-year-old charge for check fraud – which she had paid restitution for long ago.

After her daughter died of an opiate overdose, one grandmother was almost barred from taking care of her 5-year-old granddaughter because of a 12-year-old charge for economic assistance fraud barring her from licensure, Oberdorfer said.

The bill would provide a “reasonable list of barriers that doesn’t exclude good providers who may not have had a perfect past,” Hollins said.

People would still be permanently disqualified for a range of felony-level convictions, crimes, and conduct – including murder, manslaughter, first-degree assault or assaults involving children, domestic assault, spousal abuse, child abuse or neglect, other crimes against children, and any actions that resulted in death or involved sexual abuse.

They would be disqualified for a five-year period following other listed felony-level convictions, including drug-related crimes, criminal vehicular operation, robbery, burglary, witness tampering, and arson.

Someone whose parental rights were terminated would also be disqualified from family foster setting licensure for 20 years, which is more restrictive than current law, Hollins said.

Applicants could still be denied on non-disqualifying background study information, if that information was relevant to their ability to safely care for foster children.

The bill would also:

  • improve information sharing between the Department of Human Services and counties;
  • require the department to develop family foster setting licensing guidelines for county agencies and private agencies; and
  • appropriate $115,000 in fiscal year 2022 and an undetermined amount in fiscal year 2023 from the General Fund to cover costs related to implementation.

It assumes federal financial participation of $37,000 in fiscal years 2022 and 2023.

“This bill seeks to create opportunities for communities of color, in particular relatives … to be licensable so that they can take in their relatives,” said Joanna Woolman, executive director of the Institute to Transform Child Protection at the Mitchell Hamline School of Law.

This is the third session this bill has been considered and county attorneys have been “very supportive” of the effort, though a representative was not available to testify, Woolman said.

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