Scott County, Minnesota has been granted more than $1 million over the next 4.5 years to continue funding the prevention work advanced by Foster America alumna Heather Wilson.
Heather was part of Foster America’s third cohort, Cohort 3, working with Scott County from January, 2019 to June, 2020. She was brought in to kick off and implement an initiative that began in 2017, Together WE CAN – an acronym that stands for Work to End Child Abuse and Neglect. The goal of the program is to end child abuse and neglect in Scott County within a generation.
Suzanne Arntson, the Child Welfare Manager in Scott County, had noticed more children entering into child protection and into out of home placements. In the fall of 2017, she began organizing community conversations, showing community members the data around child removals and asking how the community and county leadership could solve the problem together.
Arntson then hired a Foster America fellow – Wilson – in 2019, and the pair created a structure to move forward with as many community engagement opportunities to shape the work as possible. They convened a steering committee that included both birth and foster parents, service providers in education, health and nonprofits, members of the Shakopee Mdewakanton Sioux Community, legal professionals like judges and local leaders and advocates.
“We began with a large group invested in Suzanne’s bold goal of ending child maltreatment,” Heather said. “I was hoping for around 11 people to be on the steering committee. We asked 29 people, and got 28.”
The steering committee, driving the vision for the initiative, used data specific to Scott County and evidence from general research on protective factors to create their theory of change and figure out where they needed to focus their efforts. They created subcommittees around specific topics, identifying the largest needs and most effective approaches.
“We started thinking through strategies,” Heather said. The subcommittees identified a need for more peer support for parents and those dealing with mental illness challenges and substance use issues.
Capitalizing on community interest, Heather extended her Foster America fellowship through December, 2020, moving the Together WE CAN work forward. A few months later, Scott County received a grant to implement three pilot Family Resource Center sites across the county, the first formal family resource centers in Minnesota.
By spring, the Scott County leadership wanted to do more to capitalize on the momentum and enthusiasm from the community to address the challenge of abuse and neglect. In May, they heard of a grant opportunity from the Sauer Family Foundation, and decided to apply. Heather and Suzanne gathered evidence and materials, wrote the application, got approval from the County and submitted it all within a few days.
“This is probably the fastest moving grant that has ever happened in Scott County,” Arntson said. “The grant became this idea of community prevention response; how do we continue to engage the community around prevention, and how do we maximize our reach?”
The $1.3 million grant will fund two positions — a Together WE CAN coordinator and a supervisor — who will lead prevention work at the local level, and lead the vision at the state level to reframe the child protection system. The coordinator began working in August, and county leaders hope to have the supervisor position filled in the next few weeks.
The organization funding the grant, the Sauer Family Foundation, has a deep commitment to funding initiatives that strengthen children and families in Minnesota.
“The generosity and knowledgeable investments made by the Foundation across Minnesota have been life changing,” Heather said.
As county leaders rethink how they engage with the community, Suzanne noted that input from the Foundation was a welcome addition to the conversation.
“They’re critical, generous funders, and really thought partners in the work,” she said.
With this grant, the resources are in place to more permanently continue the Together WE CAN work that started in earnest with Heather’s Foster America fellowship, and move towards Suzanne’s goal of ending child abuse and maltreatment in the county within a generation.
“The grant is creating infrastructure to span the reach of what prevention services might look like in Scott County,” Suzanne said.