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Meeting a need: Local families take in foster children

“When they license you, they recommend that you do both foster and adoption, just for this reason,” Sarah Reyelts said. “We’re 40. We didn’t plan to have babies again. When you have a baby for two years and they’re calling you mom and dad, there’s really no other option. And there never really was.”

The Reyelts family is one of 46 licensed foster families in the Mitchell area, according to Tia Kafka, communications director for the South Dakota Department of Social Services (DSS). Of those, the Reyelts family is one of 29 that are licensed to provide long-term foster care. Currently, there are 33 children in foster care in the Mitchell area.

The Reyelts said they’ve seen an increase in the number of foster families since they first became licensed several years ago, but that there will always be a need.

Beginning with her State of the State address on Jan. 8, Gov. Kristi Noem has referenced that need. During that address, she said that on Christmas, 940 children were in foster care.

“The next generation of South Dakotans cannot thrive if they don’t have a home, which is why I’ve committed my podium and my influence this year to emphasize the situation of South Dakota kids in foster care,” Noem wrote in a statement emailed to The Daily Republic earlier this week. “Every child deserves a home.”

A statewide shortage

According to Kafka, there are not enough foster families in Mitchell or in the state to accommodate the number of children under DSS care, and both the number of children in care and the number of foster families needed is increasing, with many children being placed into foster care due to methamphetamine or other drugs being present in their homes.

“There’s everything from home problems to abuse problems to substance problems. It could be for any one of a million different reasons,” said Terry Reyelts, a police officer who said incidents he experienced on the job were part of what led to him becoming a foster parent, while Sarah Reyelts was interested in foster care in part because her parents had fostered children when she was younger. “The thing is that a lot of these parents just need to get themselves right before they can handle the family dynamic again.”

Jennifer and Todd Tegethoff, who are also licensed foster parents in Mitchell, said their professional and personal experiences that exposed them to children with difficult home lives were also a motivating factor in making the decision to get involved with foster care.

Todd Tegethoff, who works at Mitchell Christian, also works with the Court Appointed Special Advocates (CASA), which advocate for abused or neglected children in the court system.

“I’m a pediatrician, and so I see a lot of broken families, and Todd was on the CASA board, so he saw a lot of things that were going on in homes, too. And so we wanted to be able to make a difference,” Jennifer Tegethoff said. “We just wanted to try to help break the cycle, because a lot of kids that are in foster care obviously come from difficult home situations. Even if we only help them for a short period of time, if we could help them see what a better home life was like and give them better goals for the future, we were hoping to just be able to impact lives that way.”

Kafka said foster parents are needed for children of all ages, and that both in Mitchell and across the state the greatest need is for Native American families or families who can take in teenagers or groups of siblings.

“The need is so great,” Todd Tegethoff said. “I think the most rewarding thing is seeing the difference that you make. So that in itself, being able to maybe break that cycle or to change a child‘s life, is well worth it.”

Like the Reyelts family, the Tegethoffs, who have four older biological children, are in the process of adopting two children.

Their newest family members are a pair of brothers, ages 6 and 2, whom they’ve fostered for the past 15 months. The boys were the first children the family fostered after getting licensed in June 2017.

The two families are not out of the ordinary in deciding to adopt children they’ve fostered, according to Kafka, of South Dakota adoptions finalized in fiscal year 2018, 56 percent were foster parent adoptions.

But fostering comes at a variety of levels, some of which are limited to only short stays or providing respite care when other foster parents need assistance.

“We are probably a little at one extreme end, just because of the way things have worked for us,” Terry Reyelts said. “There’s a place for everybody. If you feel more comfortable with toddlers, there’s a place for that. If you feel more comfortable with teenagers, there’s a place for that. It’s just such a need.”

The Tegethoffs, who said they’ve done a variety of volunteer work, agreed that fostering has been the most rewarding experience they’ve had.

“I can’t think of anything that’s yielded quite the same results as this has,” Jennifer Tegethoff said.

Getting involved

South Dakota’s Department of Social Services, which becomes responsible for children who are taken away from abusive or neglectful homes by law enforcement or by a court order, requires prospective foster parents to complete a 30-hour training program called the Parent Resource for Information, Development and Education (PRIDE), as well as a home study.

The Reyeltses said their experience with PRIDE training took place in a classroom setting over six weekends, during which they learned about how to recognize signs of abuse and neglect and got acquainted with the departments they’d be working with as foster parents.

“It’s more to get your mindset right as to, how are you helping the kid? Because there will be a readjustment period back into the family,” Terry Reyelts said. “How are you going to assist not only this child that’s with you, but also the family? Because there are opportunities in cases where they want the foster family to work with the parent, as well.”

The Tegethoffs, who were licensed more recently, said their training consisted of mostly online work and written assignments, which they could complete at their own pace, as well as 12 hours of classroom training over three sessions.

In addition to completing training, according to the DSS website, foster parents are required to be at least 21 years old, to have a home free of health or structural hazards and to be screened for past criminal activity or reports of abuse or neglect.

They must also have enough income to meet their family‘s ne, although DSS provides medical coverage and monthly assistance for foster children. Currently, foster parents in South Dakota are reimbursed $562.03 per month for a child 12 or younger and $674.56 per month for a child between 13 and 18, according to Kafka.

DSS also offers a Unity program, which is designed around native traditions and cultures to teach foster parents of Native American children about issues identified as important by Native American foster parents. At Mitchell’s DSS office on East 11th Avenue — which serves Davison, Hanson, Aurora, McCook and Douglas counties — Unity classes are set up as needed based on interest.

Both the Reyeltses and the Tegethoffs said they’ve had good experiences with local social workers and DSS, and both families said they’d encourage anyone who’s at all interested in foster care to speak with someone at a local DSS office or another foster family about it.

“Even if you can’t do foster care, help with some of the extras from it,” Sarah Reyelts said. “There’s foster care, there’s the CASA program, the visitation center, the Safehouse. They all work together to try and help these kids.”