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At last, Minnesota’s foster kids will be protected from secondhand smoke

Beginning this month, all Minnesota children in foster care will be protected from secondhand smoke at home.

Two years ago, I wrote in MinnPost about a bill I had introduced in the Legislature proposing to make Minnesota’s foster homes smoke-free. It’s been a long road, but I’m very pleased to report that, beginning this month, all Minnesota children in foster care will be protected from secondhand smoke at home.

Rep. Tina LieblingRep. Tina Liebling

Most people are surprised to learn — as I was — that smoking was still allowed in Minnesota’s foster homes, especially given our state’s history of leadership in protecting people from tobacco in other settings. Almost 40 years ago we were the first state to restrict smoking in some workplaces, and in 2007 we passed the Freedom to Breathe Act – the very popular smoke-free law that extended protections against secondhand smoke to all workers. Schools and day cares are included in our clean-air law, and that’s why I was so surprised to learn that foster kids, one of our state’s most vulnerable populations, had been left out.

Denying secondhand smoke protections to the nearly 8,000 kids in Minnesota’s foster-care system was a tragic irony. After all, that system is intended to protect the lives, health and safety of children in the state’s care, and foster kids are far more likely to have preexisting health problems. Children’s bodies are still developing, and secondhand smoke is a known cause of SIDS, respiratory infections, asthma attacks and ear infections. Nationally, nearly 80 percent of foster kids have at least one chronic medical condition – and more than 40 percent of children who visit the emergency room live with smokers.

25 states and several MN counties led the way

Minnesota had lagged behind 25 other states in addressing this problem, but we can be proud that many Minnesota counties, including Dakota, Beltrami, Cottonwood, Jackson, Lake, Steele, Ramsey, Redwood and St. Louis, did not wait for the state and passed their own policies first. The success of these counties showed how smoke-free foster care could be implemented around the state, allaying the concerns of some lawmakers had about possible unintended effects.

As I worked on this issue it was heartening to receive support from those with the best perspective on this issue: foster parents themselves. They wrote from around the state to share their stories of caring for kids. They said it was unfair that children who have already been through so much weren’t guaranteed such a simple protection. The National Foster Parent Association passed a resolution supporting proposals like ours, and a poll found that 93 percent of Minnesotans also supported the change.

All sides saw the logic

In the end, while there were several hearings and discussions of the bill, we saw little political opposition emerge. A noncontroversial proposal is rare at the State Capitol, but in this case all sides saw the logic and the need for such a policy.

I want to thank Sen. Jeff Hayden, who carried the bill in the Senate. I also want to thank the American Lung Association, the Association for Nonsmokers – Minnesota, ClearWay Minnesota, the state and county child welfare workers and others who helped develop the policy and supported it throughout the process. Minnesota is fortunate to have a cadre of knowledgeable public health advocates backed by caring citizens who work for the good of all. I am grateful to have had a role in helping bring about this positive change for Minnesota. It was a privilege to represent some of our state’s small but important voices.

Tina Liebling, D-Rochester, represents District 26A in the Minnesota House. She chairs the Health and Human Services Policy Committee.


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Comments (2)

  1. Submitted by Dennis Tester on 07/01/2014 - 09:31 am.

    Unintended consequences

    I have good friends who are Lakota and who serve as loving foster parents for 3-4 Indian kids who came from extremely abusive settings. I won’t horrify you with the details, but if you know anything about the problems reservations are having with placing Indian kids in foster homes and why they’re greatly needed, you’ll know what I’m talking about.

    Under the Indian Child Welfare Act of 1978, local agencies must try to place Indian children with Indian families whenever possible, but that’s difficult when even their grandmothers have problems with alcohol, for example.

    Since a third of Indian adults smoke tobacco (it’s a cultural thing), this will shrink the number of available Indian foster homes even further than it already is.

    But hey, at least the rare kids who do end up with foster parents will thank you for the cleaner air.

  2. Submitted by Pat McKone on 07/01/2014 - 01:07 pm.

    Unintended consequences…the details

    I work for the American Lung Association and have helped pass state and local smoke-free foster care policies in Minnesota and around the country. I would like to respond to the comment regarding the potential impact of the new law on the number of American Indian foster homes and provide some clarification about the new law. First, the new law does not prohibit smokers from being foster parents. The new law aims to provide foster children with a smoke-free environment so while smoking in the presence of a child is not allowable, smoking outdoors if the child is not present is allowed. Also, the overarching value that the state law applies to placements is that they are “in the best interest of the child.” While a smoke-free environment is now an additional measure for evaluating the best interest of the child, it is in no way an absolute. Meaning, if it is determined that the best interest of the child would be to place him/her with a foster parent who smokes, that would be okay. Placements are made on a case-by-case basis and family placements most always take precedence. Finally, the new state law does not apply to tribal lands as they are sovereign nations and there is a clear exemption in the law for ceremonial use of tobacco. Independently, American Indian tribes can and have passed policies. For example, in 2013, the Bois Forte Tribal Council in northern Minnesota passed a resolution requiring a smoke-free environment for children in foster care. The overall goal of the new law is to provide vulnerable children, many with existing health conditions, a safe and healthy home. This is a legitimate question and it did come up during the development of this policy. Lawmakers agreed that the new smoke-free provision should NOT prevent kids from being placed with family members or in culturally appropriate homes, and the law was written in such a way to make sure this wouldn’t happen

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