Safe haven of love: Foster children find a home with Austin family

Allyson Klankowski holds the hand of a little girl the family is adopting. The child was a foster child, one of many the family has opened their doors to. Eric Johnson/photodesk@austindailyherald.com

Allyson Klankowski holds the hand of a little girl the family is adopting. The child was a foster child, one of many the family has opened their doors to. Eric Johnson/photodesk@austindailyherald.com

With Christmas presents for four girls lining the living room recently, Allyson Klankowski picked up her foster daughter and asked, “Do you want to go to grandma?”

If the foster child feels like a member of the family, that’s because she almost is. Allyson and her husband, Ben, are currently in the process of adopting the girl who’s been staying with them and the couple’s three biological daughters. Though she found her permanent home, the family knows there are still dozens of children in Mower County in need of a temporary stay through foster care — something they plan to continue.

“I think it’s a big need in the community, and I’m happy to fill that void,” Ben said. “And I think we’re a very stable, safe place for children to come to.”

A family decision

The Klankowskis draw to foster care traces back to family. Ben’s family had done sponsorships, and his and Allyson’s grandfathers both worked as a guardian ad litem.

When relatives were in a tough situation and battling an illness, Ben and Allyson took care of their children, which helped get them thinking about foster care. Then Ben and Allyson started talking to other community members and learned there is a significant need for foster care.

Ben and Allyson Klankowski with their three children, Morgan, from left, Madeline and Marlie have opened their home up several foster children and are now in the process of adopting one of those children.

Ben and Allyson Klankowski with their three children, Morgan, from left, Madeline and Marlie have opened their home up several foster children and are now in the process of adopting one of those children. Eric Johnson/photodesk@austindailyherald.com

“We just decided that it was something we would be good at and felt like God was laying that on our hearts a little bit,” Allyson said.

In about two years as foster parents, more than a dozen children have stayed at their home with stays ranging from a few days to several months. They’ve had children as young as three months old and as old as about 13.

But it’s not just Ben and Allyson. The couple’s biological daughters — Morgan, 8, Madeline, 6, and Marlie, 4 — have always been part of the discussion.

“Any time we get a call from a social worker regarding a child, it’s a family discussion,” Allyson said.

While Allyson hopes the foster children coming through home leave with a positive experience for the foster children, she said her own children learn too.

“I think my kids learn more than we ever give,” Allyson said.

Their own girls have always been eager to help out.

“I think our children have been most accepting of it,” Ben said. “They’ve always been very open to taking children in on such short notice and adapting to living arrangements.”

The girls have also voiced their opinions, and Allyson admits there are times when she’s feeling burnt out and her old daughters will speak up.

But it still can be challenging to balance careers — Allyson is a nurse, and Ben works for Northern County Co-Op — with their own children and foster care.

The Klankowskis have a lot of relatives who help out. Since they both work, Allyson said it can be difficult to find child care for foster children because she doesn’t know if she’s going to have a child for days or months. Many daycares want a contract or guaranteed weekly hours.

 A statewide need

Despite challenges, Allyson said foster care hasn’t been as challenging as they’d anticipated, as she admitted they expected to face more behavioral problems.

Now, Allyson and Ben say that’s often an unfair stigma related to foster children. Regardless of what we hear of the history, the Klankowskis like to be about the clean slate rule. Social Services Supervisor Lindsay Brekke agreed people assume they have behavioral issues, which is typically not the case.

“These kids just need somebody who will accept them and give them guidance and structure to help them steer back onto the track that maybe they weren’t given in their parents home,” Brekke said.

Mower County Health and Human Services and Mower County Corrections both place children in foster care, though Corrections often places kids in more specialized foster homes and other facilities.

For Human Services, the majority of children are placed in foster care due to neglect tied to parental drug abuse.

The Klankowskis are one of about 30 licensed foster families in Mower County; however, about half of those only work with select relatives, leaving about 15 families for overall foster care, according to Brekke.

Brekke and Mower County Human Services see kids in need of a placement every day, and she admits there are some days where it can be difficult to find a foster home able to take them.

“I think across the state, there’s a shortage of foster parents,” Brekke said.

With a busy schedule and a young family, Allyson and Ben admit they’re not always able to say, “Yes.” In fact, Allyson said they’ve had to turn down Human Services requests in recent weeks due to a busy family and holiday schedule.

“There’s a lot of kids that we turn away,” Allyson said. “I think there’s a huge shortage of foster parents in the area.”

Allyson and Ben said becoming a foster parent isn’t as daunting as some may think. The requirements and application process are straightforward, Allyson said, noting it typically includes things like a home study, education and background checks.

For people who don’t want to get involved in long-term foster care, people can apply to offer respite care, which is short-term fill-ins for families that have long-term care, and there’s also short-term emergency placement options. That way, people don’t need to make long-term commitments.

Ben added human services is typically good at gauging if a placement will be for a short-term hold or something more long term.

Brekke noted many parents mull over foster care for a few years before they decide to do it, but she urged people to research it and call the county with questions.

“We’re always looking for new foster care providers who are interested,” Brekke said.

Ben and Allyson have had many resources at their disposal through the county and by seeking out blogs, podcasts and more. Allyson recommended the foster parenting podcast.

 ‘I want more hugs’

The Klankowskis have many positive memories as foster parents.

Ben said he’s glad they’ve been able to provide a safe home for children, and he loves seeing children better themselves. It’s also rewarding to see a child start trusting them as foster parents.

Allyson typically tries to get kids the snacks they like, and she remembered asking one girl what one girl wanted. She simply replied, “I want more hugs.”

However, Allyson laughs recounting a child who called her “dude” for four months.

Brekke praised Allyson and Ben for their work as foster parents, and they stay involved and bring their foster children to 4-H events.

“I think the Klanowskis are a great family and they’ve certainly made quite a few kids feel at home,” she said.

Brekke said foster families are all unique, but most try to keep foster children involved around the community. Other foster families have their children involved in youth sports, community plays, athletics, music and more.

“They do a great job giving the kids normalcy during a challenging time,” Brekke said.

The Klankowskis have stayed in touch with some of their foster children. One group that passed through the home as foster children found adoptive parents and have since remained family friends through playdates with the kids and have even attended their birthday parties.

“That was just an awesome success story,” Allyson said. “Kids that came from a horrible place; they were homeless.”

 A focus on families

Though some foster children are adopted out, that’s not the main goal. While Allyson said parents can go through difficult times, their main goal is reunification.

“Our goal is for them to succeed,” Allyson said of parents. “We think that all people should be redeemed and that they should be helped in some way.”

Though Allyson said the Seibel Visitation Center has been a great resource when needed, the family has also done visits with parents around the community at a park or other venue when appropriate and have found success.

That way, Ben and Allyson can sometimes model some parenting behaviors should a parent be struggling.

Whether a child goes home to his or her family or is adopted, and whether a child is in foster care for a few days or a few months, Brekke said there’s still a need for foster parents to help children transition during a difficult time.

“I think if you have any bit to give back, I think foster care is a great way to do that,” Brekke said.

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