Home at last, in foster care
When 10-year-old Bryson Block walked up to the yellow house in the Shorewood area of Detroit Lakes for the first time, he didn't know what he was in for.
"It was scary," said Bryson, who was about to enter his fifth or sixth foster home.
For him, they hadn't been good experiences, so he wasn't expecting much here either.
Growing up in Montana, "I was always alone with just my brother and sister because she (his birth mother) was always at the bar all day, and if she wasn't there, she was probably at work," said Bryson, whose birth father also had his share of struggles from his home in Fargo.
At first, Bryson was placed into foster care with his older brother.
"I remember at one of the foster homes my brother got choked with a yo-yo string by one of the other foster kids," said Bryson, whose voice drops to not much more than a whisper when talking about his life back then.
It wasn't the carefree life many kids are used to. He never quite knew where he was going or belonged.
"It was hard because just when you kind of got used to one foster home, they wouldn't be able to keep you because they had other kids and so you'd have to go and try to get used to another home," said Bryson.
But as tough as this was, Bryson didn't need any gentle explanation as to why he was taken away from his parents.
"Because they're both alcoholics and do drugs, so they can't support me 'cuz they spent all their money on ... other stuff," said Bryson, whose mother didn't visit or call.
Bryson would continue to visit his father in Fargo as he was placed with his biological aunt in Detroit Lakes.
But that didn't work out either, and nearly two years ago he ended up on the Kiser's front door step.
Inside that yellow house were Mark and Deb Kiser, who also had very limited information on the child walking in.
But they were no strangers to being foster parents.
Throughout a couple of decades, the Kisers had not only done youth ministry, but had also fostered dozens of children ... even adopting two.
"They warn you to not get emotionally attached, but I just don't think you can do it that way," said Mark, "Your feelings are going to get hurt, you'll get ticked, you'll laugh, you'll cry, but that's life."
Never having had biological children of their own, fostering was something that gave them joy.
But the hardest part, they say, was seeing the foster children leave.
"We've never had a kid in our home that didn't go back to their parents," said Deb, "so we always try to make a place for them where they feel safe and secure and happy while they're there with you."
Two boys never left the Kisers though -- they adopted two little brothers at ages three and five. But years quickly passed, and once those boys graduated from high school and began their own lives, the Kisers took a break from fostering. Deb went back to school to become a nurse and the two were empty nesters -- until the call came from Becker County Human Services about a boy named Bryson.
For Bryson, the Kiser's modest, yellow home seemed much bigger in his eyes.
"He walked in, and the first words out of his mouth were, "Wow, nice house," laughed Deb, who remembers how impressed Bryson was at how clean everything was.
That was the moment that changed their lives.
Bryson says it only took him about a week to get used to his new home and his new foster parents.
The boys bonded over sports.
"I like playing hockey, football and baseball," said Bryson, who now always has a big fan in the stands.
"Mark does sports with me and just lots of fun stuff, and Deb takes me shopping for clothes and sometimes we'll go out for a movie or something," he said, adding that for the first time since leaving his birth home, he truly felt like he was part of a real family.
Meanwhile, as the bond between Bryson and the Kisers grew, the one with his first family began to dissipate.
"I knew they (his parents) weren't getting any better," said Bryson, as the courts terminated his birth mother's rights. Bryson continued to see his birth father, but even he believed the Kisers were better suited to raise his son.
"He told Bryson he could barely take care of himself, much less a child," said Mark, who joined Deb in beginning the adoption process.
Bryson says he still talks to his birth dad now and then and will keep his last name, but is also happy to become the Kiser's son.
"It's awesome," he said, with a shy smile.
And although they all admit they go through their ups and downs, overall they are proving that love truly can be thicker than blood.
"I can't imagine anything that could give you the fulfillment of someone who knows you're not their real mom and dad biologically," said Mark, "and that there are no ties other than the ones you choose. There's nothing in the world that exceeds that growing kind of love."
"If there's a word better than love," said Deb, "I would use that one."
Bryson is one of the lucky ones.
Over the past couple of years, Becker County has seen a dramatic increase in abuse and neglect cases, and with that comes a growing need for foster parents.
According to Joni Wohlwend, a Becker County social worker who does foster care licensing, the county (not including the White Earth Indian Reservation) currently has roughly 100 foster care children (65 in for abuse and neglect) and only 30 foster homes. "That's a big number for this small of a community, and all the homes are full," she said, "everyone is doing all they can to keep up with the need, but sometimes we have to ask other counties to take our children."
That's the last thing social service workers want to do, as the goal is to keep Becker County children in their own schools and with their siblings if they have them.
"Because sometimes that's all they have is each other," said Wohlwend, "but sometimes it's difficult to find homes that will take sibling groups or children that have behavioral or special needs, so we have to ask private agencies to help."
According to Wohlwend, the goal most of the time is to get the birth parents the help they need to become better, more capable caregivers. The county assists them with classes and support for six months to a year. She says a little more than half of the time children do end up back with their parents after this.
But oftentimes, these efforts fail.
"And that's when the parental rights are terminated and children will wait in foster care for an adoptive home," said Wohlwend, who says there are several in Becker County right now who are in that situation.
That's why workers at Becker County Human Services are hoping to recruit more people willing to open up their homes to these children.
Wohlwend says being a foster parent isn't for everyone, but "there are a lot people out there who would be great at it," she said.
And foster parents don't go it alone.
Becker County provides support service like counseling, respite care; it pays for daycare and $21 per day, per child.
People interested in becoming a foster parent do go through a home study to make sure their hearts and homes are up to par.
"We look at their lifestyle, their background, their values, and really explore what they think they can do to help the community and what type of children and ages would be best with them," said Wohlwend, who says their houses also need to be inspected for safety.
And while she desperately searches for good foster parents, she also wants them to know exactly what they're getting into, as they take a big chance on getting their hearts broken.
"You could have a child in your home for six months before extended family is located and just like that, they're taken away," said Wohlwend, who says family members always get priority.
But she says those that take that chance also take the chance on changing a child's life.
"I think a lot of people just don't realize how many kids there are that are in homes that are really hurting," Wohlwend said, "and they could have such an impact on them."
The county is also looking for people willing to help foster parents with respite care and driving kids to and from different appointments.
To get involved, call Becker County Child Protection Intake at 847-5628.