New foster youth ombudsperson expected to be announced in coming weeks

New foster youth ombudsperson expected to be announced in coming weeks

New foster youth ombudsperson expected to be announced in coming weeks

In the next couple of weeks, Governor Walz’s office is expected to announce who will lead a new office dedicated to helping children in foster care. The Office of the Foster Youth Ombudsperson was created by the Legislature in 2022.

There are thousands of children in foster care across Minnesota.

“It’s always unfortunate when a young person has to be removed from their family and enter foster care, I think it’s traumatic for everyone involved,” said Ariana Guerra, the director of systems change with Foster Advocates. “The state makes this promise to fosters when they have to remove them from their families that they will do better, that things will be better but we know that’s not necessarily the case for most of the fosters that we work with.”

Foster Advocates successfully pushed for the legislation last year to answer a critical concern they heard from the youth they work with.

“Who are they going to call when it wasn’t their parents that were causing the harm anymore, it was the state?” said Guerra. “The message we heard the most was they wished they had a lifeline.”

Executive Director Nikki Beasley added, “Our organization ends up being the ones fielding a lot of the complaints and concerns from fosters.”

According to the law, the ombudsperson will establish a complaint process, investigate complaints, make conclusions and recommendations to the governor or Legislature and be present at court hearings at the request of a youth in foster care, among other duties.

“There’s an empowering position that our fosters take that ‘I have a voice’, that ‘If I have a complaint, I know where to go and I can trust that it’s going to be followed through,’” said Beasley.

Ada Smith, who entered foster care at 15 years old, advocated for the legislation as well.

“It would have made a huge difference for me and my peers as well,” she said.

She shared her story with lawmakers during her testimony in March 2022.

Smith explained she became pregnant when she was 16 years old, experienced frequent new placements, and described unsafe conditions she faced in foster care after her son was born.

“After pleading for help, I was told I would be separated from my son,” she testified.

To prevent that separation, Smith said she ran away and experienced homelessness before relocating to Texas to live with her sister.

“They had nowhere to put us,” said Smith.

She told 5 EYEWITNESS NEWS she’s excited there is progress in establishing the new office and hopes it will be up and running soon.

“I want [the ombudsperson] to keep their heart pure, remember they’re fighting for the fosters,” said Smith.

According to the legislation, a board will oversee and make recommendations to the ombudsperson. The 15 members must include five youths in foster care or who were recently in foster care, four adults who were formerly in foster care, one attorney who works in the juvenile court system or family court, one guardian ad litem, one social worker who works in the juvenile justice system or family court and three nonprofit professionals who work at nonprofits serving foster youth.

Smith plans to apply to be a board member.

“I never wanted to see anyone in my situation and I don’t want to see people worse off for me so if I could fix that situation, I’d love to be in that position to fix it,” said Smith.

The Secretary of State’s Office has posted the openings for the advisory board and at least 30 people are listed as having applied so far.

Meanwhile, Beasley and Guerra want to see the Office of the Ombudsperson staffed and taking complaints by 2024 but hope it will happen sooner.

“It’s going to be a radical way to just track all of these issues we hear about but in a meaningful way so we can actually affect change,” said Guerra.