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Copeland's orphanage gets final approval
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Mary Jo Copeland discounts critics who say there aren't enough children to fill her 200-bed facility. "Once the place is built, the need is out there and the children will come. I'm not even concerned," Copeland says. (MPR Photo/Marisa Helms)
The Eagan City Council has approved construction of a 200-bed orphanage within the city limits. The council voted in favor of the project 4-1 Tuesday night. It was the final vote needed for Mary Jo Copeland's Gift of Mary Children's Home, a 36-acre campus to be located north of Highway 55 and south of Lone Oak Road. The council also approved building a road and extending sewer, water and utilities to the orphanage home site.

Despite the vote, some city residents and others remain critical of the project. They say it will cost too much and there's no need for the facility.

Eagan, Minn. — Mary Jo Copeland responded in characteristic fashion to the news that the Eagan City Council gave final approval to her Gift of Mary Children's Home.

"It was a long hard haul and I'm grateful to God. I think it's His grace that made this happen so the kids can finally stop waiting, they can know it's going to be a reality real soon. And I thank God and his Blessed Mother. I'm excited it's finally over," Copeland said.

Just three people spoke in opposition to the issue -- a contrast from last June when preliminary approval of the project brought dozens of angry residents to Eagan City Hall to argue against the project.

Despite the relative calm of Tuesday night's meeting, the critics are still there.

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Image John Cina lives adjacent to the Gift of Mary site

The Gift of Mary project plan calls for 20 housing units, each capable of housing 10 children, a married couple -- what Copeland calls a "teaching couple" -- and an assistant. Children as young as four could live there and would be able to stay until they graduate from high school.

Critics like Mary Ford of the North American Council on Adoptable Children calls that institutionalization. She says children are better off living with families.

"Children need parents, not house parents," says Ford. "We also want to point out that orphanage care is prohibitively expensive, and during these times in Minnesota this is not a wise form of care to be considering, both in terms of economic costs and in terms of the human costs."

Ford says the $30 million Copeland says she needs to build the Gift of Mary Children's Home could be used to improve the current foster care system and build affordable housing for families.

Copeland has raised about $4 million so far -- with $3 million coming from the Target Corp. The bulk of that money was used to buy the 36-acre parcel in Eagan.

She says proceeds from a recently published biography will help. And she says she'll air radio and television spots asking for money. A CD called "Songs For Mary" will also go on sale as a fundraiser.

Critics say Copeland will have a hard time filling the 200 beds she's building. They say there are enough foster care parents in Minnesota, and two other similar facilities in the state are underutilized.

Some county officials are questioning whether Minnesota or federal laws would allow them to refer children to Copeland's home. David Sanders, director of children's programs for Hennepin County, says even if Hennepin gets authorized to refer children to Copeland's home, he's unsure if the kind of long-term foster care Copeland's proposing would be legal.

"Long term care is an option in Minnesota statute. Actually, federal statute doesn't really recognize long term foster care as a permanent option for children," Sanders says. "It is, to me, not at all certain whether or not the kind of alternative that is being proposed by the Copelands would fit under what's under statute at this point."

Sanders says the goal in both state and federal law is to reunite children with their families. He says 95 percent of the time, that's what happens.

But Mary Jo Copeland says she's convinced of the need for her facility.

"Once the place is built, the need is out there and the children will come. I'm not even concerned," Copeland says. "From what I'm hearing from the judges and all of the figures that are down, that home is needed, those children are going to come."

For two years, Copeland tried to get the controversial home built in the metro area but was turned down again and again by other communities, until Eagan's mayor invited her in. As for the $26 million left to raise to build the project -- as her lawyer put it, "nobody says no to Mary Jo."

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