WILLMAR - Halfway into a two-year pilot program designed to address Minnesota's higher-than-acceptable rate of children being placed into foster care, District Court Judge Jenna Fischer is finding some possible solutions.

As part of the statewide program designed to address federal concerns about the state's rate of foster care placements and the number of children re-entering foster care, Fischer is spending two years handling child protection cases in five of the 13 counties in the Eighth Judicial District including Kandiyohi, where she is chambered, and also Swift, Meeker, Renville and Yellow Medicine counties.

Typically, rural judges are assigned to a wide range of cases, from murder to bankruptcies to terminating parental rights, especially in areas like the Eighth District.

"We're rural and very few of the rural districts have the ability - have the resources - to simply designate a judge as their juvenile judge," Fischer said.

But as part of this pilot project funded by the state, Fischer is handling all the child protection cases in these five counties to identify areas where the courts can improve practices that could play a part in the state's improvement plan.

Minnesota has been identified by the U.S. Department of Human Services as having "too high of a removal rate of children into foster care and too high of a re-entry back into foster care after returning home," Fischer said.

The pilot project is being conducted in this region even though Fischer said the child foster care problems identified by the federal department pertain to statewide figures and not this district in particular.

"We didn't have excessive re-entries or we didn't have excessive removals," Fischer said. "Our district was not a problem per se. There wasn't something that needed to be fixed here."

Even though the "numbers were good" in this judicial district, Fischer said the Minnesota chief justice asked Eighth District to take on the project, in part because of the district's geographical size, population and number of judges.

She said local judges and court administrators met to discuss a plan of action to find ways to address the statewide problem. The district was asked to "build this boat" and the state courts would provide the tools to make it happen, Fischer said.

Creating a plan

One of the requirements of the federal plan is that Minnesota have a child protection specialization program for the courts and identify if there are any improvements based on judicial specialization or specialization of a lot of the functions, Fischer said.

The committee finally decided to dedicate Fischer as the child protection judge during the two-year span for the five counties.

"This pilot is happening here and nowhere else. This is the only place in the state where this is happening," Fischer said, adding that several metro counties already dedicate judges for a specific caseload, but this is the first time there is a specialized circuit judge working across county lines in Greater Minnesota.

Dedicating her entire time to child protection cases has allowed Fischer to fine-tune her own practices in the courtroom and develop guidelines that could help other judges be more effective in handling these cases.

A key issue for courts is meeting strict calendar deadlines for hearings in each step of a child protection case and moving kids from foster care into a permanent home within the specified amount of time, whether that's with the birth family or a new family.

"We have to conduct hearings at least every 90 days. It can't be 91," Fischer said.

Not meeting the hearing dates can mean loss of state funding for county courts.

Since she began her two-year assignment in January of 2018, Fischer said uniform courtroom procedures and templates have been developed that will make it easier for all judges to meet deadlines and provide permanent homes to children in the required timeframe.

"We're keeping eyes on the calendar for every case where every kid is removed," she said. "We're changing some practices where at every hearing we're talking about deadlines, the date of removal, when definite requirements and reports need to be filed and actions need to be taken regarding permanency."

Fischer said in the past it was common for county attorneys to draft court orders for child protection cases that judges would issue when deciding where a child should be permanently placed.

That can make a parent feel like their voice is not taken into concern before judges makes a decision.

Fischer said she wants everyone in the courtroom to "say what they want" and she'll "balance that equally" before writing court orders.

Kids in need

Children needing protective services is not new.

"Some parents simply don't have the tools that they need to successfully raise the children that have been given them," she said.

Fischer said 50 to 75 years ago, typical problems involved parents who were impoverished or addicted to alcohol. But the introduction of methamphetamine as a street drug that could be produced in the home, along with opioid addictions, has increased the need for court intervention in child protection cases.

"We've had just an exponential increase in the number of child protection cases that the courts manage, and for every case that we have in court, social services probably has two or three more that they are managing," Fischer said.

"We're seeing more cases in need of foster care because of the addiction and we have more cases (nationwide) of grandparents raising grandkids," she said.

Siblings are also stepping in to serve as foster parents. Fischer said she is overseeing a 19-year-old foster mom who is raising her young brothers. "She wanted them. And she's doing a great job," Fischer said.

Until there's a better societal response to addictions, Fischer said child welfare cases and out-of-home placement of children will continue to grow.

When the pilot program ends at the end of the year, Fischer said she expects to return to the normal court routine of handling whatever case shows up on the calendar.