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'Every day is rewarding': Local man shares his foster parent story

Craig Lewis sits in his Hudson home. He's been a foster parent for seven years. May is National Foster Care Month, and St. Croix County Foster Care Director John Bretl said the county very much needs more foster parents. Gretta Stark / RiverTown Multimedia.

Craig Lewis taught for 35 years. As the Hudson resident neared retirement, he made a decision that's made a big impact on his life.

"I knew I wasn't going to be able to just go cold turkey on having kids around," Lewis said, "So it just seemed like the right thing to try."

Lewis decided to become a foster parent. For three years he was a teacher and a foster parent. Then, he retired and went into foster care full time.

"Every day is rewarding," Lewis said. "Every day is fun. Something different."

Lewis shared some of his experiences as a foster parent in honor of National Foster Care Month, celebrated in May.

Lewis said foster care is not without its challenges. But that's one of the things he enjoys about it.

"I like to be challenged," he said, "Especially at my age. Nobody challenges old people much."

Foster care is a complicated situation, Lewis said, and challenges can pop up anywhere.

"Once in awhile it's the parents. Once in awhile it's the foster system itself and all the paperwork and shenanigans that have to go on before anything can get done," he said. "Sometimes it's the courts that can be a challenge, because they don't necessarily want to do things that you, as a foster parent, think are right for the kids. Sometimes it's the public. Because, you know, foster kids have a stigma on them sometimes."

Though he's faced challenges, Lewis said his first experience as a foster parent was an "easy start."

"They just gave me a kid who needed a home for about a year, and everything went really well," he said. "He was a nice kid. Still comes to visit, which is rewarding in itself."

Lewis has been a foster dad for seven years and still finds it rewarding.

He's on his fifth "permanence" foster child.

"That's a kid they expect to stay with you for a prolonged period of time," Lewis explained.

His "permanence" kids have stayed with him from one to two-and-a-half to nearly three years each.

He's also housed 25 "respite" kids, which are usually sent to him when parents or foster parents need a break for a weekend. He said those kids often stay regularly for a time.

He's also had about 20 "emergency" placements.

"Those are kids who in the middle of the night you get a phone call at 1 in the morning, 'We need somewhere to put this kid tonight.'" Lewis said.

Though it isn't always easy, Lewis has kept fostering children; he's licensed for 6-18 year old boys, for seven years, and plans to continue for at least two more once his license comes up for renewal.

"What else am I going to do?" he asked. "Work at Walmart? I need a challenge. I was a teacher. I need a mental challenge. I need an emotional challenge to get up every day, and foster care certainly provides me with that ... something can happen at any moment. I like that. It's like teaching."

St. Croix County needs foster parents very badly, said Foster Care Coordinator John Bretl.

"We are kind of in a crisis situation," he said.

There is "dire need" for more foster parents, said Bretl. Especially for those willing to care for younger children, infants, toddlers, through young preschool age children.

Bretl said he wanted to bring this to attention because Foster Care Month is in May.

The designation began in 1988 by proclamation of then-president Ronald Reagan, and since then every sitting president has recognized May as National Foster Care Month, Bretl said.

Initially, the event publicly recognized foster parents and their contributions. Now, he said, Foster Care Month also brings awareness of foster care issues and the ongoing needs of children.

Nationwide, Bretl said, more than 400,000 kids are in out-of-home care. In Wisconsin, that number is more than 8,000. In St. Croix County that number is around 70.

Bretl said the county is struggling to find enough foster parents to care for all the children.

"A lot of it is due to meth use," Bretl said.

He said if it's established that meth use is compromising parents' ability to provide a safe, stable environment for their kids, the kids will be taken into protective custody, in most cases. If taken into protective custody, a child would likely be placed in a foster home.

What does Bretl look for in a good foster parent?

"Someone that is flexible," he said. "Someone that is patient, someone that's not judgemental."

He said it's also important for foster parents to not personalize things that might be said to them.

He said birth parents can be frustrated with the situation and not really mad at foster parents.

Lewis said being a foster parent is a calling.

"But you do need to be called," he said. "I wouldn't have thought about it until a teacher said to me, 'Why don't you do foster care?'"

Any St. Croix County resident who is interested in being a foster parent can contact Bretl at 715-246-8317 or john.bretl@sccwi.gov.

Gretta Stark

Gretta Stark has been a reporter for the River Falls Journal since July of 2013. She previously worked as a reporter for the New Richmond News from June 2012 to July 2013. She holds a BA in Print and Electronic Media from Wartburg College.

(715) 426-1048
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