Catholic Charities’ St. Joseph’s Home for Children leaves lasting legacy

| July 31, 2020 | 0 Comments

Kevin Hart credits St. Joseph’s Home for Children in Minneapolis with helping him find the “right direction” for his life. He now co-owns several Culver’s restaurants in the Twin Cities. DAVE HRBACEK | THE CATHOLIC SPIRIT

It was a saving grace for Kevin Hart, who grew up without parents and was shuttled from one temporary home to another before landing at Catholic Charities’ St. Joseph’s Home for Children in Minneapolis.

“My life became rent-a-kid,” said Hart, 55, now living in Coon Rapids and part owner of several Culver’s restaurants in the Twin Cities.

He arrived at St. Joseph’s in 1982, between his junior and senior years of high school, and counselors there asked him what he wanted to do with his life. He didn’t know. They insisted he establish goals and fight for them.

“The counselors were fantastic; they talked to me,” he said. “They taught me how to channel my anger, and really how to point that back in the right direction, with goals and dreams. They told me, ‘You will come to crossroads, you will have choices to make.’”

Hart was placed in yet another temporary home, finished high school, entered the Navy and found his way to a career in the restaurant business. He fought through missteps, learned to seek advice and build relationships, to listen and learn. He has returned to “St. Joe’s” several times over the years to share advice with and listen to the children there.

He is among thousands of people who, as children, were helped across many generations at the storied home, which is set to close as an emergency shelter for Hennepin County in August, and to close at the end of the year as the county’s central intake for child protection placements.

Established more than a century ago as an orphanage and the first of many ministries for Catholic Charities of St. Paul and Minneapolis, St. Joe’s has evolved in the way it cares for children as society has evolved. Over the last five years, that evolution has meant Catholic Charities and Hennepin County trying to keep children in their homes, with relatives or in foster care, not institutional facilities.

What is now known as St. Joseph’s Home for Children was Catholic Charities’ first program in the Twin Cities, formed in 1869 as the St. Joseph’s German Catholic Orphan Society. With staffing provided by members of the Benedictine order in the early days and serving youth left parentless by the dangers of pioneer life, the Civil War and pandemics, the Society opened the first St. Joseph’s German Catholic Orphan Asylum in Saint Paul in 1877.

In 1960, economic and social conditions dictated that the Orphan Asylum merge with the Catholic Boys Home, where the Sisters of St Joseph of Carondelet had been serving youth at the current 46th and Chicago location in Minneapolis since 1886 to improve services to youth. Over the last 60 years, St. Joe’s has provided safe, stable and dignified care in times of need.

Traci LaLiberte, executive director of the University of Minnesota’s Center for Advanced Studies in Child Welfare, said Catholic Charities should be commended for its openness to family-centered care, and its willingness to change its model as the benefits of such care are better understood.

No solution is without difficulties, but it is up to care providers to work with families, relatives and foster homes to provide stability and a caring environment that is centered on family-based settings, she said.

“Congregate care is not the first choice,” LaLiberte said. “It’s not a situation that is without its own trauma. Catholic Charities worked hard with the county to work its way out of a job in this area. It’s the right thing to do.”

It leaves Hart grateful but saddened — and still a little worried about children who, like him, have no helpful relatives to go to, and for whom shelter homes and foster homes are not a great fit.

“St. Joe’s had a big impact on me,” Hart said. “To find out they were closing down was heartbreaking for me, to tell you the truth.”

Kathleen Rasmussen, 72, has been a nurse at St. Joe’s for 25 years. She staffed overnights, worked as the nursing supervisor and now is on call at the children’s home. Like Hart, the closing leaves her sad and worried about children who might slip through the cracks.

“Of course, it would be better for children to be with relatives. But there are those who benefit from out-of-family care. It’s disappointing. A lot of the children do well in out-of-home placement,” Rasmussen said.

Laurie Ohmann, executive vice president and chief operating officer of Catholic Charities, said she understands the concerns. “Many children found stability at St. Joe’s during very difficult periods in their lives,” she said.

But over the years, Catholic Charities and other child development experts came to see long-lasting, negative effects of disruption and out-of-home placements on children, Ohmann said.

Several smaller shelters in Hennepin County can accommodate children who are separated from their families, but the county remains committed to creating stability for children by “focusing on family, kin, and foster care so kids can remain in the community,” she said.

Hennepin County Commissioner Mike Opat, chair of the county’s Child Well-Being Advisory Committee, said the closure represents progress in reducing the trauma children face when families are in crisis.

“Hennepin County and Catholic Charities’ partnership has endured for decades,” Opat said. “As with all great partnerships, it evolves from time to time, and this is the next step in our work to bring transformational change to child protection.”

Catholic Charities officials acknowledge the emotional attachment many people have to St. Joe’s. As part of that recognition, it is inviting people to share their memories at Catholic Charites’ website, cctwincities.org.

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At a glance

The need for St. Joe’s has dwindled as child protection efforts have advanced. In recent years, the shelter, which has 21 beds, has served fewer than 10 children a night. In 2017-2018, St. Joseph served more than 800 children for central intake or to stay up to 90 days in the shelter. By last year, that number dropped in half.

Closing both programs, which operate 24 hours a day, seven days a week, will mean the loss of 37 full-time jobs, including nursing staff and central intake. Catholic Charities officials said they hope some employees will find work in Catholic Charities’ other programs.

Catholic Charities also is determining what to do with the 12-acre property, which includes Hope Street, a 28-bed emergency shelter for homeless young adults 18 to 21, and transitional housing for 12 males ages 16 to 21.

 

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