A recent Monday morning started early at full volume as an 18-month-old boy stomped his way through exploring the room, often trailing a 3-year-old girl as she went between art projects and checking up on the infant in the house.
All three came to the house through unique circumstances as foster children, some briefly passing through and some finding a semi-permanent home and a new family.
“We have two biological kids that are 15 and 13,” said Nikki Zajicek, 40, who with her husband, Jason, have welcomed foster children into their home since 2013. “I had done day care before that so I had lots of experience with kiddos.”
Despite her experience with children, she said it is different taking care of other peoples’ children knowing they would not be going home at 5 p.m.
The Zajiceks are part of a small community that is increasingly in demand.
“We only have 10 licensed foster homes in Columbia County right now — general homes,” said social worker Kelsi Bauer with the Columbia County Department of Children and Families. “We have a few more homes that are licensed as kinship homes who have relative-children placed with them.”
Interest in volunteering has been low, with no foster homes available in Columbus or Lodi, according to Bauer.
Nikki Zajicek said she realized there was a need because her church offered a “giving tree.”
“So we would help out buying Christmas gifts that the social workers recommended and realized that there was a bigger need than just Christmas gifts and so we started looking into it,” Zajicek said.
That led to calls to the Columbia County Health and Human Services Department, a yearlong process and a substantial amount of paperwork before the Zajiceks were licensed as a foster home.
Once the couple was licensed, they were contacted about two brothers, 13 and 15, who needed a place. Their mother had become ill on a bus to Minneapolis, which led to them staying with the Zajiceks for the next 15 months.
“Currently we have 34 children placed in out-of-home care through Child Protection in Columbia County,” Bauer said, ”and 15 of those kids are in general foster homes, eight are in relative foster homes, five are just placed with relatives who are not licensed, and then we have one who is in detention and five kids who are in residential care centers.”
Of the children who need placement, Bauer explained that a majority come through circumstances of physical or sexual abuse, or neglect, with some coming through Columbia County Juvenile Justice, in which their situations may keep them from returning home until a criminal case is resolved.
“Teens are kind of scary for people so we don’t have a lot of homes that are willing to jump in and take that risk,” said Bauer, “but teens are also really great when they are in placement, usually, and we have had foster homes that have had really great experiences with teens in the home. It is just trying to make that first step and getting them to expand their preferences.”
‘Don’t know situation’
According to the Wisconsin Department of Children and Families 2015 Child Out-of-Home Care Report, the most common reasons for placement are neglect, child behavior problems, caretaker drug abuse, an incarcerated caretaker, physical abuse, caretaker inability to cope, inadequate housing and caretaker alcohol abuse.
“You really don’t know about their situation,” said Zajicek. “Our job as foster parents is to be concerned with the kids and know that the social workers are taking care of what needs to be done on the other side, and our job is to make sure the kids are safe and taken care of, and taken to the doctor, and those kinds of things and also to start to build a relationship with their parents.”
The Zajiceks now share their home with a 3-year-old girl, who arrived at 4 months, and an infant. On that Monday morning, Barry, 18 months, and his 24-year-old mother Tazia were visiting, though now just as friends and extended family.
Zajicek understands the concerns of parents whose children are placed in the foster care system.
“You’re strangers, and I have her child,” Zajicek said, “so she wants to know about me and that is pretty typical for a parent, and rightfully so.”
Once licensed, a family does not have to worry about children being dropped on their doorstep in the middle of the night.
“It’s not that everyone has to do a long-term placement, there could also be just a weekend, that they needed a break while they figured things out,” said Zajicek. “And they’ll always say, ‘We have this-age kiddos, do you think you can do it? — You always have an option if life is too busy right then or your have your own stuff going on.”
More than two-thirds of Wisconsin children in out-of-home placement eventually were reunited with their primary caretaker in 2015. The next most common was finalized adoption, for 13.5 percent of resolved cases, then guardianship at 12.9 percent, followed, in the case of 297, of 6.1 percent of kids, reaching the “age of majority,” in which a minor is legally recognized as independent, usually 18 years old.