The number of children in need of foster homes is increasing in Carlton County, while the number of foster homes is decreasing, according to Rhiannon Carey, Children & Family Services unit supervisor at Carlton County Public Health and Human Services.

There are 22 licensed foster homes in the county; of those, 13 are open to taking non-relative foster children.

There is a need for non-relative homes, especially for babies and teenagers. There has also been an increase in the number of sibling groups needing foster home placement.

The number of children in Carlton County traditional and relative foster care has almost doubled in the last five years.

Part of the problem is the growing opioid crisis. Statewide, roughly 7,500 children and young adults entered out-of-home placements and the biggest reason was due to parental drug abuse at 29 percent.

People open their homes to children in need for different reasons.

Nicole and Daniel (they requested their last names be redacted to maintain anonymity) began the licensing process when Nicole learned of a distant family member who had a baby she could not care for. Nicole had wanted to either adopt a child from another country or to do foster care since she was a teen. She contacted human services to request she take the newborn as her first foster child. They agreed.

Tom and Kathy Lakes fell into the foster program by accident. A grandchild asked them to take in a 15-year-old best friend who needed a place to live. They declined at first. Then the grandchild brought the friend to spend a weekend.

When they brought the teen back home, they discovered the family was living in a camper with no heat, electricity or running water and it was mid-November. The teen said there was also drugs in the home.

"I refused to bring the friend back home to that," Kathy said. "I brought the friend to the Moose Lake Police Department and they brought the teen to the shelter."

In a few days, the Lakes had begun the foster licensing process and the friend moved in with them.

While the county provides a stipend for foster children to help cover their living costs, including diapers, clothing allowance and after-school activities, it is not a moneymaker.

"The money covers most of the costs," Nicole said. "It is definitely not a way to make money." Kathy agreed.

Both women say their husbands are involved with the foster children and enjoy having them.

Being married is not a requirement to acquire a foster license. Single parents are also welcome to apply as long as they meet the criteria.

Both couples have also already raised children of their own. Nicole currently runs a home-based day care. She said they both have a Christian background and felt called to become foster parents. They take newborn to 5-year-old children.

The biggest challenge for Nicole and Daniel is juggling appointments for the children.

"We've done the whole kid thing already," Nicole said. "This is our second time around." She had also been a single mother for a while before meeting Daniel.

Kathy and Tom have grown children and grandchildren. They take foster children up to age 16; they've taken seven so far. They currently have two sibling foster children.

"I call myself a foster grandparent," Tom said with a laugh. "I thought it was a good thing right away. We both have compassion for kids. It hurts to see kids in a bad situation."

The grandchildren spend a lot of time at their home and get along well with the foster children.

"They get along like brother and sister," Kathy said about the foster kids and her grandchildren.

"The husband and wife need to be a team and agree on things like parenting," Kathy said. She enjoys watching the foster children improve and thrive while living with them. Her husband is preparing the teen for drivers education for her drivers license.

He also enjoys taking them to the family farm and have them help with community service.

"We try to teach them good values," Tom said. He said his wife is great with the foster children and keeps on top of everything.

She cautions that there can be challenges to fostering children.

"Do your research," Kathy advises.

Nicole and Daniel still have the newborn baby they took home from the hospital.

"The baby has been a total joy," Nicole said. They have fostered five children since bringing the first one home in April 2017, and have no plans to quit.

"These little ones absolutely soak in the stable lifestyle we can give them," Nicole said. "There are so many children in need of a loving stable home."

"They are a part of our family," Kathy said. Tom agreed. "They're important and we want to do it," Tom said.

Both families say they plan to continue fostering children indefinitely.

For more information or questions about becoming a foster parent, contact Sarah Krocka at 218-878-2579 or sarah.krocka@co.carlton.mn.us.

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>Foster homes by numbers

Carlton County child protection placements:

• 64 in 2014

• 90 in 2015

• 89 in 2016

• 111 in 2017

• 98 as of June 20, 2018

Children and young adults needing out-of-home care in Minnesota in 2017: 16,600

Estimated children in foster care in U.S. in September 2016: 437,465

Sources: Carlton County Public Health and Human Services, Minnesota Department of Human Services, Children Welfare Information Gateway.