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Polk County seeks foster parents to help keep up with need

Over the past decade, more than 20 foster children have stepped into Heidi and Tom Smart's East Grand Forks home. Each has their own story, but the Smarts strive to provide them all with something similar: stability and safety. "It's weird having...

Over the past decade, more than 20 foster children have stepped into Heidi and Tom Smart's East Grand Forks home.

Each has their own story, but the Smarts strive to provide them all with something similar: stability and safety.

"It's weird having kids go to a stranger's house, and whatever is going on at that moment is so chaotic," Heidi Smart said. "So we try to be as stable as we can for them and hopefully help them."

The Smarts' home is one of 32 licensed by the Polk County Social Services Department - a number county staff said it would like to see grow.

The department doesn't place as many children as nearby Grand Forks County, which sees hundreds of children comes through its system annually, but the service is important and in constant need of foster homes, Polk County Social Worker Jackie Jeffrey said.


So far this year, Polk County has 30 children in its foster system staying with foster families or relatives. When children leave their home, the county's preference is to place them with relatives, but sometimes it isn't possible and licensed foster parents are tapped to fill the need.

From 2011 to 2015, the county had an average of 81 foster children in its system.

A majority of the county's 32 foster homes are in East Grand Forks, which has 15 licensed to operate.

The remaining homes are spread throughout Crookston, Erskine, Fosston, Fertile, Lengby, Mentor and Winger.

Recruiting help

Four more homes spread throughout the county are currently completing the county's licensing process.

New additions are needed to replace homes that choose not to relicense, which Jeffrey said happens for several reasons, including foster parents moving, retiring, adopting children or becoming too ill to care for kids.

Others may take a brief break from fostering, known as respite, and licensed homes are need to take over for them.


Smart said that's how she got involved

"I hadn't thought about it before," she said. "I was approached to see if I would be interested. A friend needed someone to do respite for her and you need to be licensed to do that, so I went through the licensing process."

Once licensed, the Smarts began answering the call for more than just filling in for those on respite.

With homes constantly cycling through the system, recruiting new parents is key for the county to keep up with the number of children it needs to place.

In addition to word of mouth, the county also advertises in local newspapers in hopes of attracting new recruits.

"We continue to receive new applications but recruiting is very challenging," Jeffrey said. "We would really like to increase the number of foster homes in Crookston and the east end of the county."

With a population is nearly the same as East Grand Forks, Crookston has six homes licensed for foster care. Other towns in the county's eastern end have only one or two homes.



Part of the recruitment process also may involve dispelling misconceptions that surround foster care.

"People have all these myths about foster care," Jeffrey said. "And they believe them ... but they're not true."

Assumptions that foster parents must be married, stay at home with their foster children and take any child they are called to foster are all incorrect, according to materials provided by Jeffrey.

The county's foster parents run the gamut in age and marital status. Some have grown children, some still have young children in the home and some don't have children of their own.

Those that do work out of their home will have child care paid for by Polk County.

While licensed parents must be 21 years old or older, there is no upper age limit to be a parent.

Licensees also have a choice of what age range they can foster and are under no obligation to say yes to every child in need of placement.

The Smarts have two grown children of their own and adopted a third child after fostering her. Children of all ages have come through the couple's home for varying amount of time, ranging from one month to one year.


"What keeps me going, besides the kids, is the support of the (county) staff," Smart said. "Without them, I'd be lost."

Those who may be interested in becoming a licensed foster home can call (218) 281-3127 for more information.

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