Julia Classen has a lot to be proud of over the last five years. “Minnesota is a state that has a thriving infrastructure of social services. Minnesota has one of the first domestic violence programs. One of the early anti-sexual assault programs started here. This state has a long history of addressing people who have been involved in violent crimes. It was a bit long overdue that we paid closer attention to children,” says Classen.
Classen finished her fifth year on the board of the Minnesota Children’s Alliance and her second, and final, year as President in 2016. Highly educated in nonprofit management and active with nonprofits since 1979, Classen has worked the last 15 years as a consultant to other nonprofits. Her consulting work shows nonprofits how to grow and lead their organizations. It was in that line of work she learned about Child Advocacy Centers, their mission to protect and investigate alleged child maltreatment, and decided to get more involved.
In the last five years, the Minnesota Children’s Alliance’s growth and extraordinary new funding has become a point of pride. “I like to joke that we’ve tripled in size: from 1 to 3 staff people,” Classen says with a chuckle. But that increase in staff means having more staff available to serve members, advance policy, and make sure families and children are served. Funding, she says, “was maybe a quarter of what it is today.”
Classen credits that growth to the Public Policy Committee and Minnesota Children’s Alliance Executive Director Marcia Milliken. Milliken also began work six years ago. “She works tirelessly for new funding to develop new CACs around the state. We’ve had areas which have not been covered. This more than anything else is impacting families and children. They may still be driving distances, but not as far and not as long.”
Minnesota’s size, geography, and population density has proven challenging in the development of new CACs and in children’s mental health. Most states set goals for travel time so children aren’t sitting frightened in the backseat of a car for two hours one way. Minnesota’s goal is 90 minutes to a CAC. Currently, in some parts of Minnesota the travel time is up to three hours.
Among the growth from four new CACs to a total of ten total across the state, Classen adds, “The Alliance itself has done a lot of working in developing itself and how to better serve its members.” Some notable developments include forming new partnerships with anti-violence coalitions, trainings to help people understand implicit biases, and working with tribal communities. “We’ve had one of the first conferences in the nation on serving tribal communities. There’s a lot of great innovative work,” says Classen.
“I would say the Alliance and the members have really increased their public policy and advocacy work over the years, too,” says Classen. Adding, “This is a state where you’ve had early pioneers in the CAC movement, like Carolyn Levitt, M.D.. They were here, and yet we did not have a strong network of CACs.” Initially, CACs existed in a handful of denser regions, like the Twin Cities and Duluth, where programs like First Witness, Corner House, and Dr. Levitt at the Midwest Children’s Resource Center have worked. “This is a significant increase in coverage and capacity,” says Classen.
Like most people, Classen says, “I’ve never met a nonprofit that’s adequately funded,” and more work has yet to be done in building, training, and accrediting CACs. Much of the funding comes from the Minnesota Department of Public Safety. “We’ve really learned how to advance public policy in a non-partisan way and specifically how to get legislative support for CACs and the Alliance and moving it from where it’s a zero-sum game of helping either children and families or just helping the Alliance,” says Classen.
Classen will remain on the Board of Directors for the Alliance for one more year before being term-limited. “I think having new leadership is essential,” she says, noting Jeri Boisvert, “who has an enormous amount of leadership experience” will step into the President’s role in 2017. Changes in the Board’s structure to include more diverse professionals than exclusively CAC Directors is also paying dividends. Today, the board consists of community members and CAC directors. “It’s a big shift,” she says.
With a proud beat in her voice, Classen notes, “What’s key is that we have understood and believed that everyone is interested in making sure vulnerable, abused, children are protected and cared for as well as their families. When you start with that premise and you act from that, everything works a lot better.”