Adopting the spirit of giving
The Abersolls would hardly describe themselves as typical candidates to be foster parents.
The possibility had never occurred to Beth and Tate, a couple living in Baxter who at that time only had a 9-year-old daughter. It wasn't until extraordinary circumstances arose—when a close relative of Beth's needed treatment and couldn't care for her newborn infant—that foster care chose the Abersolls.
Just like that, they had a 6-day-old infant pressed into their hands.
"That was tough. All of a sudden, we had a newborn in our hands. And, I was like, 'I don't know how to make a bottle anymore! I don't know how to do anything anymore!' So we figured it out. We had her for six months," Beth Abersoll said. "It was about a month (after the baby returned home), like 'This is so boring, we're just sitting around the house, we don't know what to do with ourselves.' We had a social worker call us saying, 'You guys come highly recommended. Do you want two kids?'"
About seven years and nearly 40 foster children later, the Abersolls' experiences include two naked toddlers thrust into their care, an unexpected trip during Christmas to pick up an infant tucked in a urine-soaked car seat and sheltering a teenage mother and her child for the better part of a year. The couple summed up their time as foster parents with terms like "fortunate" and "lucky," or, rarely, they reluctantly admitted a few difficult episodes were "rough."
The topic of foster care in Crow Wing County, whether it's posed to caregivers or social workers, is often framed as an area of great need, though it's consistently noted this need is systemic across the state of Minnesota and the greater United States. Currently, there are about 180 children in the Crow Wing County foster care system at any given time—this number is subject to frequent fluctuations, based on domestic emergencies requiring the state to intervene.
Social workers at the Crow Wing County Community Services building noted there's been a significant uptick in the number of foster cases as a result of Gov. Mark Dayton's 2015 Task Force on the Protection of Children. This initiative instigated changes in screening criteria and increased engagement in the investigative process pertaining to child neglect or abuse.
For Crow Wing County, licensed caregivers include 46 foster families, along with 19 licensed relatives called upon in much the same way the Abersolls were at the beginning of their tenure. Typically, social workers try to recruit relatives for their familiarity with the child, although frequently this isn't possible, which necessitates contacting foster families. An average placement involves three children—social workers try their best not to break up siblings—and this is ultimately based on availability, space, the needs of the children and the ability to care. Placements can be as short as a few hours, or last for years and even beyond if the foster family decides to adopt.
Crow Wing County social workers commented the percentage of adoptions compared to the total foster care population, with nearly 20 in 2017, is also seeing an increase.
Aitkin resident Jen Sheets is a foster mother licensed in both Crow Wing County and Aitkin counties who juggles eight children (five biological, three adopted) between the ages of 1 and 15. She said misconceptions about foster care revolve around the issue of money, whether it's the belief foster care will lead to financial hardships for a household, or, conversely, the belief people join the foster care system to profit.
Neither assumption is correct, Sheets said, noting the state provides a stipend covering the basic needs of the children, such as clothing, food and shelter, or about $25 a day in her case.
As a woman who grew up in a household that welcomed children from all over the neighborhood at all times, Sheets said the financial implications, especially the notion of making money off foster care, never made sense to her. The main sacrifice, she emphasized, is giving of herself, gifting her time and efforts to the children placed in her care.
"The moment the kids come into our home, regardless if they're with us for two hours or five years, they're our kids," Sheets said. "We treat them like family from Day One."
Kelly Pederson, a social worker for Crow Wing County, said these subsidies can be taken up by day care costs alone—a reality facing the majority of households as both parents work outside the home—and this poses some limitations for the placement process.
Foster care is a joint effort between caregivers and the county to provide for children from dysfunctional home environments, said Stacy Brown, a social worker at Crow Wing County.
"If you're interested in foster care, I would look into it before thinking, 'Oh, I'll just get broke.' We want to support our foster parents and we want them to meet the needs of the foster children," Brown said. "(Money) is not a reason to get into foster care and it's not a reason to not get into foster care."
The problem of the idealized foster child
While foster care is an ongoing need in Crow Wing County, often the problem wouldn't be addressed with new foster parents as much as foster parents with "open minds and open hearts," said Jennifer Froderman, a social worker and the foster care licenser for Crow Wing County.
"Sometimes we have issues where we don't necessarily have 'ideal' children to have in your home," she said. "So we'll have 46 foster homes that we can call, but 46 people are going to say they don't want the kid. That's one of the bigger problems, if we have 46 homes that are open to being foster placements, but are looking for a specific type of child."
Many times, foster parents—especially newer ones, Froderman noted—balk at the prospect of caring for a "problem" child with a record of behavioral issues, or a history of significant emotional, physical or sexual abuse. When caregivers wait for an idealized foster child, it leaves less attractive candidates hopping from household to household, further compounding feelings of abandonment and loneliness.
While she understood the need and rationale behind the supervisory system in place, Sheets said, she took issue with how these behaviors are documented for social workers. It's often difficult to include crucial details of context or subjectivity. Without them, she said, it reflects unfairly on the child and casts them as poor candidates for long-term care.
"Too often the kids get labels attached to them, too quick. Like, in their darkest time and they're misbehaving and they're fighting us—how any of us would act if we were ripped away," Sheets said. "Then they're 'violent' or they have 'these types of behaviors.' That gets put in the file and you have this picture in your mind and they don't fit, so you just move on."
Sheets pointed to the case of her own adopted daughter, Jessica, who moved between 14 homes and failed the adoption process three times because of behavioral issues documented in her file.
Jessica was formally adopted by the Sheetses earlier this year. When she explained how her daughter fit into the family and Jessica's place in their daily lives, Sheets described her as "perfect."