By Frederick Melo
Ramsey County is urging foster parents to put away the cigarettes while they're taking care of foster children.
County officials said they will add smoking to the list of red flags when they're considering child placements.
"If we have a child in a home ... it should be clear that the intent of this board is that smoking is not acceptable," said Commissioner Rafael Ortega. "If we have somebody who is smoking two packs of cigarettes a day ... we should really be looking for alternatives."
After a lengthy discussion Tuesday, the seven-member Ramsey County Board amended and then adopted the recommendation of its Community Human Services Department, which, in light of a lack of clear direction from the Minnesota Department of Human Services, has been studying smoking guidelines for foster families in counties across the state.
Board members said their goal is to strike a balance between the smoking rights of foster families and visitors to the foster home, and the needs of children to live free of secondhand smoke, which can be just as much as a health hazard as smoking.
According to the resolution, the new parameters, which are still being finalized, "intend to keep smoking from occurring when foster children and adolescents are in residence in the home, but are not intended to ban smoking by foster care providers ... altogether."
Commissioner Janice Rettman expressed concern about the policy affecting otherwise successful foster care placements and foster care licenses, especially placements with relatives.
"You've got some people in foster homes right now, (and) they may be in a kinship home, or they may be in a place where they're thriving," Rettman said.
"The one thing we don't want to do is make this so prescriptive," said Commissioner Blake Huffman, who is a licensed foster parent. "There may be a child (living with) a grandma, and for whatever reason, the grandma may not be able to smoke outside. ... I don't want to tie hands too tightly."
County Human Services Director Monty Martin also worried that the wording may come across as a requirement rather than a guideline.
The Human Services Department will explore how best to implement the parameters, and officials said they will not automatically remove children from successful placements or blood relatives because smoking has occurred.
Responding to those concerns, Commissioner Toni Carter added more flexible language to the resolution, stating that "whereas implementation of the parameters and placement preference will be with the highest regard to the health, safety and welfare of children or adolescents ... and with regard to the circumstances of prospective and current providers."
Board members said the parameters will provide a new tool and stronger starting point for social workers to engage families.
"We shouldn't avoid those tough conversations with these families, when the interest of the child should be paramount," said County Board Chair Jim McDonough.
The board plans to revisit the parameters in six months to see how well they are working.
Frederick Melo can be reached at 651-228-2172. Follow him at twitter.com/FrederickMelo.