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Providing safe homes CUTLINE; Nolan center, plays with his siblings, Edward, 3, left, and Alexis, 5. Nolan's adoption will be finalized today. Nolan had been left at a Rochester restaurant in October. Matt Miller/Post-Bulletin

p By Janice Gregorson

gregor@postbulletin.com

The pager may go off at any time, day or night.

It may mean police have pulled children from a drug house or other dangerous situation.

They need a safe home, an emergency shelter. They need love and understanding and nurturing.

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And, several families in Olmsted County are ready and prepared to provide all of those things.

They are among 106 homes licensed to provide foster care services for children in the county.

While the discovery and placement of a newborn baby found abandoned in a restaurant may draw more publicity, the work of other foster care providers is just as important, says Heather Johnson.

Johnson is program manager for foster care and day care licensing in Olmsted County.

Currently, there are 64 family foster care homes in the county providing services to 168 adults and 106 homes licensed for children.

Those being helped may be abused and neglected or have physical or mental illnesses.

Some families carry pagers and are able to respond anytime day or night to take in children in emergencies.

Jean and Sean, who have asked that their last names not be identified, were called after a newborn baby boy was found abandoned in a Rochester restaurant in October. Today, they are adopting that baby, now named Nolan Michael.

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The couple has been involved in foster care programs in both New York and Rochester and have taken in nearly a dozen children.

"There is such a great need for foster parents," says Sean.

They got involved in New York because they didn't know if they would be able to have children.

"We wanted kids in the house,'' he said.

Today, they have three, two of whom are adopted.

They were also vocal in New York trying to improve the foster care system.

"Kids tended to remain stagnant in that system for a long time,'' he said, noting that it often took a year to terminate parental rights to make children available for adoption.

In Rochester, it has taken just six months from the time Nolan came to their home three days after being found abandoned in a duffel bag in the restaurant.

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Assistant Olmsted County Attorney Geoffrey Hjerleid said this is a good example of how well the system works to put children in permanent homes.

Necessary stability

He said Nolan is only going to know one set of parents, rather than be shipped around from foster home to foster home.

Hjerleid also renewed an earlier pledge that if Nolan's biological parents come forward now, they will not be prosecuted criminally.

He said he is doing that in an attempt to get the biological parents to come forward to provide some medical and personal background for the child.

Jean and Sean also hope that might happen.

"There's a real sense of curiosity,'' Sean said. "He is an incredibly good-natured boy."

But they don't know if there are any medical issues in his biological family's history. Finally, they say, it would be nice if Nolan could know his biological heritage.

Hjerleid and the couple stress that the information would remain confidential.

They also note that many people remain unaware of a relatively new state law that allows parents to take a newborn to a hospital emergency room and hand the infant to any health care worker without fear of being prosecuted. The law took effect last year and doesn't require parents to give their names and no police report is filed. The intent was not to legalize or encourage child abandonment, but to make sure no more babies died when they were abandoned.

The couple describe their new son as happy and easy going, with big blue eyes.

At birth, he weighed 7 pounds and 6 ounces. Today, he weighs 20 pounds and is 281⁄2; inches long. He joins older sister, Alexis, 51⁄2; who affectionately calls him "Peanut" and brother, Edward, 3, who often insists on dressing in matching outfits.

And the family dog, Keesha, is his protector, plopping himself down between Nolan and visitors.

Adopting Nolan doesn't mean an end to the couple's foster care services. They will continue to be available to provide respite care for families and foster parents who need short-term relief from their children.

They urge others to consider opening up their homes.

"There are so many different children and ages,'' Jean says, addressing the need for foster parents.

Johnson agrees.

She says there is no typical foster family.

"We have single foster parents who have never married all the way up to married couples with kids to grandparents who have already raised the kids,'' she said.

And it is not unusual for foster parents to adopt children they take into their homes.

So far this year, there have been nine such cases. Last year, there were 19 and in 2000, a total of 17.

Tough situations

Johnson said there still are needs in the community with some more difficult situations than Nolan.

"He didn't have as many complicating factors as others have had,'' she said, explaining that some children have severe physical or behavioral problems.

She says there is no shortage of families wanting to take babies and toddlers and children under 8.

But, there is a shortage of families willing and able to work with older children and those with behavorial difficulties, such as those who may be sex offenders or have mental health problems or need 24-hour health care.

It mirrors the situation statewide.

According to the Minnesota Department of Human Services, the 5,700 foster parents in the state aren't enough to care for almost 11,800 children in the system. The need is particularly great for older children and large sibling groups that want to remain together.

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