WORTHINGTON — May is National Foster Care Month, and this year there's much to celebrate — namely, the volunteer foster families who take in children in need throughout Nobles County.

When the COVID-19 pandemic hit early last year and businesses, schools and government offices closed their doors, social workers with Nobles County Community Services braced for impact, explained Family & Children’s Social Service Supervisor Beth Mahoney and Social Worker Danette Bechler.

With COVID cases climbing and unknown exposure rates, they expected foster parents to feel nervous about taking in new children, so they set up a facility with sleeping bags and cribs, in case foster children needed somewhere to go.

However, the facility wasn't needed after all.

"Never once did anybody hesitate," Mahoney said.

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The Nobles County residents licensed to be foster parents didn't think twice about opening their hearts and homes to children in need, even during a global pandemic.

"We appreciate them," Mahoney added.

While the location of foster placements didn't change much during 2020, the number of children in foster care dropped slightly, probably due to a number of factors.

"Part of it might be the preventative work that we're doing," Mahoney said. Her department works with families to put resources in place that can alleviate the need for foster care.

The county has also been successful at finding relatives to place children with, rather than sending them to, foster homes. For example, when foster care is needed due to a police hold, the Minnesota Department of Health & Human Services would like the county to place children with a relative in 37.5% of cases — and Nobles County is holding steady at 57%.

It can be difficult to find family members for several reasons.

Fear of the government, in particular, is a local obstacle. While kinship foster care does not require the same licensing paperwork and classes that a non-family foster parent would need (at least at the time of placement — families do have to agree to become licensed), it still involves a home visit and law enforcement endorsement, both of which can make folks feel wary.

Mahoney said that her department has been reaching out to faith communities to build trust, especially among immigrants. She explained that the county would love to recruit foster families who speak the same language and come from the same cultures as all the children who need foster care. Because the state forms are only available in English, it would require help from the community to translate the information for these prospective foster parents.

Bechler added that the training videos are also only provided in English, so it would be a painstaking process for a speaker of each local language to translate each video line by line for prospective foster parents. While that workload is not insignificant, it would likely make a big difference in being able to place every child in a home that speaks their language, eats the same food and looks like them.

Besides preventative work, it's also possible that foster care numbers dropped in part due to distance learning. Teachers are mandated reporters, so not having one-on-one, in-person contact may have meant that some potential foster care situations went unreported last year.

Bechler and Mahoney said they actually wondered if they'd have any reports from teachers who got an up-close look at students' home lives from teaching over Zoom, but that didn't end up happening locally.

Another positive force in the foster care arena has been Fifth Judicial District Judge Sherry Haley, Mahoney and Bechler said.

Under Haley's leadership, as was the case with her predecessor, Gordon Moore, "the kids feel heard," they both agreed. Haley, they said, makes sure the kids who are old enough to understand what's happening, do — every step of the way.

Although they greatly value those currently serving as Nobles County foster parents, Bechler and Mahoney noted that there's always a need for more people to sign up. Foster parents don't have to be U.S. citizens. They also don't have to own a home., be married or have biological children.

If residents want to help but aren't in a position to become foster parents, there are other ways to serve. Prospective foster parents could use help filling out paperwork, with translation services and with technology assistance.