By Starrla Cray
WRIGHT COUNTY, MN Warmth. Safety. Security.
For local children born into a home where abuse or neglect is the norm, these simple affirmations can be life-changing.
“Every little thing you do makes a real impact on them,” said Carole Nystrom, who has been a foster parent for nearly 26 years.
Nystrom remembers one little girl, for instance, who arrived in the wintertime wearing very little clothing. After she was given pajamas and tucked into bed, the child kept saying, “Oh, it’s so warm here.”
Some kids come from families of abuse. One boy asked Nystrom if she was going to give him a cold bath. At home, cold water had been his punishment when he did something he wasn’t supposed to, such as wetting the bed.
“That was minor compared to the rest of them,” Nystrom said.
Kids sometimes tell Nystrom they don’t ever want to go home, but foster care isn’t forever.
“You kind of learn to hang on loosely, because you know you’re not going to be keeping them,” Nystrom said. “They all win a little part of your heart.”
Whether a child stays for one day or one year, Nystrom and her husband, Ralph, do what they can to help brighten their future.
“It makes a difference,” Nystrom said.
Wright and McLeod counties
Currently, there are about 35 foster care homes licensed with Wright County Human Services. Ten are in Buffalo, four are in Cokato, two are in Delano, one is in Howard Lake, and the rest are split between Maple Lake, Clearwater, Annandale, Monticello, Otsego, South Haven, and St. Michael.
One home in Winsted (which is in McLeod County) is also licensed in Wright County.
“We only serve Wright County, but counties do go to each other if they are in need of a home and we help each other out,” noted Marisa Ferguson, who handles child foster care licensing.
The McLeod County Social Service Center currently has 12 licensed non-relative foster care families.
“We’re always looking for new homes,” said Sally Aubol-Grangroth, supervisor for child foster care in McLeod County.
Nine children are with foster families in McLeod County right now, plus others who live with relatives or in group homes.
Wright County has 86 kids in foster care, including 15 who are in pre-adoptive homes. Ferguson noted that adoption is not the goal of foster care, but it does happen.
“Our first goal is always to reunite them with the parents, if we can,” she said.
The time a child is with a foster family varies.
The shortest stays (generally less than 72 hours) are called shelter care.
In Wright County, foster families can sign up to be on call as a shelter home during emergency situations, such as if a parent is in jail due to DUI charges and the child has no place to stay.
“That’s a huge need, too, in Wright County,” Ferguson said.
Nystrom does both shelter care and regular foster care. One year, she kept track of how many kids they had come and go, and it was 52.
“That was an exceptional year,” she said, explaining that typically it is much lower. The most they’ve ever had at one time is eight.
Nystrom’s favorite age group are toddlers and preschool age children.
Caring for teens
Another foster family, Dwight and Betty Hackbarth of Cokato, focus on caring for girls ages 12 to 21.
“We have a hard time finding people who are willing to take on teens; that’s our biggest need right now,” Ferguson said. “When many people think about foster care, they think of taking a baby. That is a need, too, but we have more providers willing to take care of younger children.”
The Hackbarths have been doing foster care since 1988. Through the years, they’ve taken care of boys, girls, and teenage moms with their babies.
They now operate North Crow Home, which is licensed under the Department of Corrections for up to eight girls at one time.
“I stay pretty full,” Betty said, adding that she accepts youth from several counties.
The program at North Crow Home teaches life skills (such as budgeting and cooking) to help participants become successful adults.
“We give them a sense of family life,” Betty said. She and her husband provide the majority of the care, along with Betty’s daughter, Jungjoo Hackbarth, and her husband.
North Crow Home also works with other professionals, such as probation officers, special education teachers, and therapists.
Increase in mental health issues
Some of the girls at North Crow Home suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder and other mental health illnesses.
“These kids come from such traumatic pasts, you can’t expect them to blend in,” Betty said.
According to the Child Trends Databank, “Children in foster care are more likely than other children to exhibit high levels of behavioral and emotional problems.”
A national study of youth aging out of foster care found that nearly 40 percent had emotional problems, and half had used illegal drugs.
“We’re seeing more and more kiddos these days with mental health issues,” Ferguson said.
The Hackbarths and the Nystroms agreed that foster children seem to have more difficulties now than in the past.
“The kids have issues because of the environment they’ve been in,” Nystrom said, noting that it seems more parents are struggling with drug addictions.
In these situations, taking children to visit parents can be a challenge.
“Visitations are hard on kids because it’s confusing for them,” Nystrom said. “They always have a loyalty to their parent, but they’re not able to live there. After a visit, it’s not uncommon for them to act up for a couple days.”
Younger children usually have fewer complications, but even infants who are in a home with a lot of yelling and violence can be affected, Nystrom said.
Within six months of a child being in foster care, a “permanence plan” needs to be created, according to Ferguson. The plan might be to return to a biological family or other relatives, or to be adopted into a new family.
Years ago, there were fewer rules on how long kids stayed in foster care. Nystrom’s first child, for instance, was with her family nearly 10 years.
“Some stayed five years, other stayed two years,” Nystrom said, adding that some have come and gone multiple times.
For Nystrom, being able to help children is highly rewarding.
“They just so appreciate that feeling of security; we like being able to do that,” she said.
Although foster care is hard work, Betty’s family wouldn’t have it any other way.
“I think we laugh more,” she said. “We have a lot of fun with them.”
Becoming a foster parent
The process to become a licensed child foster care provider typically takes a few months.
“We have a lot of training available,” Ferguson said, explaining that Wright County offers classes each month on various topics relating to foster care. A support group for providers to connect with each other is also available.
To learn more, follow the link at www.herald-journal.com or contact the human services department at (763) 682-7400.