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Foster parents-to-be see a need to fill -- and fill it

Olmsted County continues looking for new foster parents to help fill gaps for children needing temporary homes.

Thoma
Garrett and Rachel Thoma on Friday, March 25, 2022, outside their home in Rochester.
Traci Westcott / Post Bulletin
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ROCHESTER – When Garrett and Rachel Thoma began thinking about starting a family, they knew they had choices.

“We always talked about it over the years that we would entertain fostering or adopting because we never were completely set in stone with the idea that if we were going to have children they would need to be our biological children,” Garrett Thoma said. “We would be able to love and nurture anyone in this world.”

Ben and Alisha Horgen knew the same choices existed if they wanted to grow their family of four, which includes 8-year-old Selma and 6-year-old Henry.

“Two was good for us, but our house wasn’t capped. … There are a lot of kids that need homes,” Ben Horgen said.

As a result, both couples have become foster parents-to-be.

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The Horgens became licensed foster parents last year, but have yet to be matched with children needing foster care, and the Thomases are expecting to finalize their license requirements this week.

Their paths toward opening their doors to children needing temporary – or potentially permanent – homes started with a required informational session held every few months by Olmsted County.

“We really had no idea what the process was,” Alisha Horgen said of heading into the training after she read an article on the Rochester Mom blog and felt called to be a foster parent. “I was fairly uneducated in what to expect.”

Horgen Family
The Horgen family, Alisha and Ben with their kids Selma, 8, and Henry, 6, and family dog Charlie on Friday, April 1, 2022, outside their home in Rochester, Minnesota.
Traci Westcott / Post Bulletin

At the same time, Rachel Thoma, a Dover-Eyota middle school and high school teacher, said she dove into research before signing up, but still found the session had information that she needed in order to consider options.

Getting started

With the next session planned for April 20, Tiffany Kacir, the Olmsted County program manager for adoption and child foster care, said it’s not uncommon for hopeful foster parents to discover new things to consider during the initial session.

“I think a lot of people don’t know what it entails,” she said.

While the session can lead prospective foster parents to bow out, she said it can also open options for others, especially since several types of foster parents are needed, from those providing emergency shelter and respite care to people looking for long-term commitments.

“We always encourage people to think about whether it’s a good fit at the time, because it’s a lot that you are taking on when you are fostering,” she said.

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The county currently has 109 licensed foster homes, but 42 of them are licensed to care for a relative needing placement outside their home.

In February, the county had 116 children in out-of-home care, which puts a pinch on a system that seeks to match each child with the right home.

The Horgens have already received two calls about potential placement, but neither panned out. One they declined would not be a good match, and the other involved three siblings who ended up moving in with family members.

Alisha Horgen said their potential acceptance of three children at once stems from what they learned during the licensing process. She said they initially were open to taking up to two children but discovered that could mean separating siblings.

“We just felt heartbroken about that and quickly said we could take three,” she said, acknowledging that they expect to be asked to take even larger sets of siblings, if the situation arises.

“I’m sure we would say yes to more than three, if it were the right group,” she said.

Garrett and Rachel Thoma, who pointed out they are learning to be parents alongside being foster parents, said they’ll likely be less flexible on numbers.

“We have set our max limit at two children for right now, so we could accept a sibling set if needed,” Rachel Thoma said.

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At they same time, the couple said they are open to taking older children, setting expectations at anyone between ages 5 and 18.

The Horgens plan to take in ages that match their children or are younger.

“We are not ready for teenagers,” Ben Horgen said.

More parents needed

Kacir said such limits are important for families, but it also leads to the need for more potential households.

“While our numbers look great, and we are proud of the numbers, we are still not matching up with the needs we have of kids coming into foster care,” she said.

She said she believes many myths surrounding foster care have kept potential foster parents from applying, which is why the upcoming information session is important.

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She said foster parents don’t need to be couples, own their own home or be a stay-at-home parent. They simply need to meet standard licensing requirements and complete 30 hours of state-mandated training.

Basic requirements for licensing are being a resident of the county, being at least 21 years old, and passing a criminal and social services background check.

A criminal or social services history won’t necessarily bar someone from being licensed, but such reviews are handled on a case-by-case basis.

Kacir also said many people don’t understand that the level of commitment can vary.

“You don’t need to commit to fostering a kid for a year, two years or maybe long term. … Maybe it’s just providing that weekend care or short-term care for a family in need,” she said

While 60% of Olmsted County youth in the foster care system have seen out-of-home placements range from six months to two years, Kacir said emergency and respite services call for short stays and are essential to the county’s program.

The Horgens and Thomas said the flexibility of the program was noted throughout the licensing process.

“It’s supposed to take around four months, but ours took five months,” Alisha Horgen said of the training process, which was partly delayed to best fit their schedule.

Preparing parents

Ben Horgen said the process, which includes classes, interviews and potential safety adjustments for a home, was intense, but necessary.

“It’s a lot of work,” he said, estimating it was an 80-hour commitment. “It’s not easy, but the scrutiny is necessary, because you are taking care of someone else’s kids. Whether they could or couldn’t do it themselves is not the point.”

Rachel and Garrett Thoma said a variety of research through online videos, blogs and podcasts helped prepare them for what to expect, but both couples said the training helped them better understand the unique needs for the children that could eventually share their homes.

Horgen Family
Selma Horgen, 8, and her brother Henry Horgen, 6, play in the front yard as their parents Alisha and Ben watch from the porch on Friday, April 1, 2022, outside their home in Rochester, Minnesota.
Traci Westcott / Post Bulletin

“Our kids are 8 and almost 7,” said Alisha Horgen, who homeschools her children. “We feel like we have a pretty good handle on raising children at this point, but it feels like we needed a re-education on how to care for children who have been through trauma.”

Garrett Thoma said such concerns were an eye-opener.

“I have a mentality of rolling with the punches, but the one thing that threw me off guard was parenting style,” he said. “(With foster children) you can’t say ‘go to your room and think about what you’ve done.’”

Rachel Thoma said she sees the trauma-informed parenting skills as being applicable to all children, so some lessons have helped her as a teacher.

Ben Horgen also pointed to broader benefits to becoming a licensed, even if the option of taking in children isn’t an immediate goal.

“If you don’t have a license, you can’t be open to the opportunity,” he said of the potential for helping a family in need. “Create the opportunity,”

As someone who feels compelled to “run to the messes” and care for others, he said he knows the need is there.

“There’s nothing messier than kids being taken away from their parents for crappy situations,” he said. “It’s a mess worth running to, because there are kids in the aftermath of that.”



Find out more

Olmsted County’s next information session for potential foster parents is set to run from 1 to 4:30 p.m. April 20.

Interested applicants will learn about what is involved and what to expect when becoming a foster, adoptive or kinship provider.

Registration for the session continues through April 19, and can be done online at https://webapp.co.olmsted.mn.us/CFSRegistration/

Tiffany Kacir, the Olmsted County program manager for adoption and child foster care, said attending the session does not require participants to move further through the process, but it will provide information to consider before taking next steps.

“We talk through a lot of things,” she said.

Randy Petersen joined the Post Bulletin in 2014 and became the local government reporter in 2017. An Elkton native, he's worked for a variety of Midwest papers as reporter, photographer and editor since graduating from Winona State University in 1996. Readers can reach Randy at 507-285-7709 or rpetersen@postbulletin.com.
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