We’ll Keep Doing it Until They Make Us Stop

Posted on September 23, 2021

Who in the world would voluntarily raise 24 children—most of whom have behavioral, developmental or medical needs? It’s hard enough to take care of one or two children, let alone two dozen!

That’s why therapeutic foster parents are straight up superstars.

Like Cindy and Robert Michelson of Piedmont, S.D. Over the last 20 years, they’ve provided therapeutic foster care to 24 children, with the longest placement lasting seven years. Of course, that doesn’t include the four foster children they ended up adopting. As if that weren’t enough, they also have three biological children!

The Michelsons decided to start doing foster care after reading a newspaper article about it. Two of Cindy’s sisters worked at Black Hills Children’s Home, so she knew about CHS. The child featured in the newspaper article was their first placement.

We just jumped in with both feet,” Cindy says. “We had training. But with her we got another sort of training—real life training, so to speak. She wanted to know we were committed.”

Of course, children decide if someone is committed by testing them, which can be tough. But in the Michelsons’ case, that very first placement worked out. “We’re still in contact now after all this time,” Cindy says. “She’s grown and has a baby of her own.”

More evidence of superstardom

The Michelsons’ youngest biological child was only 10 when they began doing therapeutic foster care. Adding foster care kids to the mix can be difficult, but the Michelsons excelled there, too.

Cindy Michelson with three of her adopted children

Today, all three of their bio kids are foster care licensed. In fact, a daughter who lives in Minnesota adopted one of Cindy and Robert’s foster children.

Of the three children the Michelsons adopted, two have complex medical needs and have had multiple surgeries; many of their foster children have also had medical needs. “That’s a big interest of ours,” she says. “We know the ropes now, like how to find the best medical care.”

Therapeutic foster care is the type of care that CHS specializes in. It’s for children with higher levels of needs. This means the foster parents receive additional training. And it means that the child and the foster family receive a higher level of support—including 24-7 access to case managers plus individual and family therapy.

Ups and downs of foster parenting

Although foster parenting can sound challenging, Cindy doesn’t see it that way.

“I would say foster care is simply common-sense parenting,” she says. “It really is. You can have 20 years of different trainings—great trainings—but it still boils down to what your gut's telling you this child needs.”

“And, the kids need the commitment. It doesn't have to be a lifetime. It doesn't have to be 20 years, but it does mean you stick it out for the kid. They're going to test to see if you're committed.”

Foster children coming into a home may believe they’re not worthy of the care and attention. “I had a little gal about five years ago that said she was allergic to nice. A nice home? ‘Nope, won't work.’ Nice food? ‘I don't like it.’ She was like that because she didn't know how long it was going to last.” Cindy says.

She reflects on a boy who came into their care. “He was raised in a tough environment. You don't show emotion because that makes you weak. I didn’t want him switching schools for the last two months of the school year, so I’d drive to Rapid City every day to drop him off and pick him up.”

“At first, when I'd drop him off in the mornings, he would walk to the corner of the building, put his hoodie up, and just stand at the corner, hands in his pockets and try to be invisible. He had no friends. He didn't even have a connection with his teacher, although she tried. He just had that wall built up so high.”

Cindy continues. “So, by the end of the two months, the teacher emailed and said how much he had just blossomed. He had made a friend there, which was huge, and he'd actually been starting to put his hand up when he knew the answer to something and participating in the classroom. Now, going on four years later, he wants to do track.”

She recalls another boy who was just four years old when he came to them. “He was battered and bruised and had to wear a cast where his femur had been broken,” she says. “He was angry and even more angry because of having to be stuck in this wagon and be pulled because he’d been an active little boy.”

“As he got better, we saw little de-escalations,” Cindy says. “He got the cast off but he needed more than just physical healing. We would say, ‘I see that this is hard for you. Can I help you?’ Sometimes it'd be yes, sometimes it'd be, ‘No, get out of my face.’ I would let him know on his terms that he was going to be okay. And eventually he was adopted and was successful.”

“Every kid just needs to know that it's safe and they can be themselves and they can be mad at the world. They can be sad at the world while they heal. I don't want to get too cliché, but it truly is the case.”

Celebrating success

One of the facts about foster care is that a close bond between the child and the family is forged—and then broken. Foster parents know this going in, but that doesn’t necessarily make it easier.

Cindy looks at goodbyes as successes and frames them as such for their foster children.

“We have two now and they’re going to step down placement—regular foster care instead of therapeutic.” The two children were upset when they learned they would be leaving. Cindy told them, “This is a success! It’s a new adventure for you, and we will try to keep in contact.”

Also, Cindy had been working with the children to help them handle big feelings. “We talked about those big feelings and the skills they’ve learned while they were here, and that’s it’s okay to miss us—but they get to go to the next step.”

She acknowledges that it’s difficult. “At least I’m sure they will be safe.” The children they’ve adopted also worry about the foster children. They struggle with saying goodbye and need reassurance that the children leaving will be all right.

“We like the success stories,” she says, smiling. They follow their former foster children (after they’ve aged out) on social media and enjoy keeping up with their successes.

Advice for those considering becoming foster families

Cindy encourages everyone to consider being foster parents or helping in other ways.

“Don't come into foster care with rose-colored glasses, which I think a lot of people do. ‘All they need is love’ is another cliché. They do, but it takes commitment, and to be committed through the end of a child's time with you. Because otherwise, they take all that on themselves, they blame themselves, if you don't have that commitment.”

“The biggest thing is that there’s such a huge, huge need,” Cindy says. “If you can't foster, find a way to support organizations in South Dakota. Even being a mentor to the kids that come from abusive situations, because they don’t know what our version of normal is. Help them, whether it be Big Brothers, Big Sisters, or CASA or other ways to help kids that are in the system.”

“Or if there are cultural things that people could pass on, that would be huge. I know that's a tremendous need for our kids in foster care. It could be any cultural thing, because there's a lot of things I don't know, and I admit that. I'm trying to learn.”

Cindy and Robert? “We’ll keep doing it until they make us stop,” laughs Cindy. They’re following in the footsteps of Robert’s uncle, who provided foster care until he was 85!

To learn more about therapeutic foster care, please contact Chelsie at 605-343-2811 or chelsie.ogaard@chssd.org.