Minnesota begins building new children-focused agency
Minnesota House Information file photo.
Minnesota is one month into a daunting task: Creating a new, 1,000-employee state agency centered on the well-being of children and families.
The Legislature this year created the Department of Children, Youth and Families, which will oversee a number of children-focused state programs that have resided in other agencies, including the Departments of Human Services, Education, Health and Public Safety.
The goal, said Tikki Brown, DHS assistant commissioner of children and family services, is to “deepen the alignment and coordination to better improve our services.”
Those services — including child support, child care, juvenile justice initiatives and licensing for foster care and child care centers — are some of the most important and most challenging for state government.
But the payoff can be great: Research shows that “adverse childhood experiences” — like violence in the home, neglect, abuse, addiction, an imprisoned parent — are at the root of many of the social ills the government must confront when those people become adults.
The federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that ACEs can “increase the risks of injury, sexually transmitted infections, maternal and child health problems (including teen pregnancy, pregnancy complications, and fetal death), involvement in sex trafficking, and a wide range of chronic diseases and leading causes of death, such as cancer, diabetes, heart disease and suicide.”
Nationally, 17% of adults report experiencing at least four of these types of traumatic childhood experiences.
Minnesota ranked fifth in a recent national study among the 50 states and D.C. for child well-being, and the child poverty rate here is one of the best in the nation, just shy of 11%. (The highest child poverty rate in the nation is Mississippi, at nearly 28%.)
This relatively healthy atmosphere is excluding many Minnesota children, however. The North Star State has a long history of racial disparities, which are some of the worst in the nation in categories like income, home ownership, health and education.
The Legislature and Gov. Tim Walz hope the new Department of Children, Youth and Families will be an upstream solution to these issues that will finally make Minnesota a healthy place for all children, not just most of them.
Why build a new agency?
The state has two years to transfer programs from their existing agencies into the new children’s department.
Erin Bailey, assistant commissioner at Minnesota Management and Budget and executive director of the governor’s Children’s Cabinet, said the new agency will help Minnesota better serve low-income children and families.
“Our programs that are serving our children and lower income families are not often structured in a way that allows them to be the top priority,” said Bailey, who is also a co-chair of the committee overseeing the implementation of the new office.
Brown, the DHS assistant commissioner, said bringing together child-focused programs under one roof will allow state government to simplify processes and programs to help them work better.
The majority of programs that will move to the new agency are currently overseen by DHS. For years, lawmakers, the Office of Legislative Auditor and outside experts have criticized DHS for its poor oversight of grants — and for its sheer size, arguing that an agency of its magnitude is difficult to manage properly. DHS is Minnesota’s largest state agency, with about 7,100 employees. The agency encompasses about 44% of overall state spending.
“It’s a daunting task. It’s much easier to continue onward with how things are or how things have been set up,” Brown acknowledged.
Brown is also a co-chair of the transition steering committee, which is composed of assistant commissioners who are working to create the nascent department, and it is still hiring people for the implementation office.
Republicans earlier this year were critical of the new agency, arguing that implementation would be nearly impossible and questioned whether it was necessary for Minnesota.
Rep. Walter Hudson, R-Albertville, in March said the new agency would shift attention away from children and instead toward the government.
“What we’re doing here is we’re replacing love and intimacy with ideology and bureaucracy,” Hudson said.
Walz proposed the new agency as part of his pledge to make Minnesota the best state in which to raise children and to start a family.
The Legislature allocated $20.3 million for fiscal years 2024-2025 for the creation of the new department. The transition office is housed within MMB.
A commissioner for the new agency must be appointed by July of next year. Bailey said the transition team has not created a list of qualifications for the new commissioner, nor does it currently have potential candidates.
From July 2024 to July 2025, the programs will be transferred into the new agency.
Not all children-centered programs will be moved into the new agency. The Department of Education will still oversee K-12 education, and DHS will still manage mental health services, for example.
The transition steering committee is working out of the MMB building in St. Paul, and officials haven’t yet decided where the new agency will be headquartered.
The new agency offers another potential advantage: Lobbying muscle. An agency devoted to families and children will operate under a sympathetic banner at the Legislature. They’ll likely advocate more effectively for their budget than if the programs were spread among a half dozen larger departments.
Bailey said the Legislature makes funding decisions, but she allowed that creating an agency specifically for children and families may lead to more money in the future.
“An agency that gets its own budget … will ultimately lead to more resources for children and families,” she said.
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