When Jaylea Johnson, now 4, came to foster care parents Todd and Michelle Johnson in Little Falls, there weren’t many things she knew how to do nor had she had the opportunity to learn.
Later, the Johnsons learned from Jaylea’s family members that she had been left alone in her crib while her parents had been using and passing out from drugs.
“They would have her in a crib with a large screen TV pushed up against the crib, so she then watched Mickey Mouse all day or whatever she watched. That was how she spent her days — in a crib with a large TV,” Michelle said.
Jaylea was also unable to communicate her needs. Not knowing how to point, show or speak, she would instead just scream. All the Johnsons could do was to guess until they had it right.
“She was non-verbal when she came; no eye contact, no physical contact and wouldn’t cry if she got hurt. She was like a zombie,” Michelle said.
Whenever they tried to wash her face or hands, she would scream at the top of her lungs.
“We still can’t trim her fingernails. We can only do it while she’s sleeping,” Todd said.
Although her behavior is still a mystery when it comes to water and nail clipping, both Todd and Michelle believe it triggers a traumatic experience.
At first, it was difficult for Todd and Michelle to bring Jaylea outside. With no sense of boundaries regarding places or people, she would run. To her, the world was a place to discover and roam.
“We had to put alarms on the doors to let us know if she opened one,” Todd said. “She has no sense of stranger danger. She’ll walk right through Mall of America and sit down by anybody or go talk to anybody in a restaurant. She doesn’t see it as something bad could happen and that makes it scary.”
It was also challenging to bring her to stores or other public places as she would scream, throw, run, kick, pull hair and bite from time to time.
Michelle said that at first glance, it’s easy to think children who are misbehaving or having tantrums at the store need to be disciplined. However, they may not realize there is a history behind the behavior or that the child is currently learning.
Todd said that whenever Michelle would leave the house, Jaylea would sit and scream and that it would take her about 40-45 minutes to calm down.
“If she left the house and shut the door, in Jaylea’s eyes it meant abandonment,” he said.
Jaylea wasn’t familiar with brushing her teeth or having them brushed. She also didn’t how to do simple things, such as picking up or holding a crayon, let alone how to draw.
However, she knew very well how to push a chair against a cupboard and climb up to retrieve food from the top shelf.
“It broke our hearts,” Todd said.
Since Jaylea came to the family, she has slowly come out of her shell, is learning social and other skills and is thriving.
She no longer reacts to having baths or having her hands or face washed by screaming. Instead, she has come to enjoy bathtime.
“Now you can’t get her out of the tub,” Michelle said.
She has also grasped boundaries better as she no longer runs away, but stays in the yard.
“We love those milestones,” Michelle said.
Todd and Michelle adopted Jaylea in December 2018. Their youngest addition to the family has become very close to one of their other children, Ashlan Robbins. The two also share the same birthday, Robbins said.
The Johnsons continue to do foster care for children ages birth to 10. Despite hearing the heartbreaking stories of the children they house and seeing them go, it is worth it all because of the impact they can make.
Since Todd and Michelle started doing foster care three years ago, they have had about 17 children come through their home. All were taken from their parents due to drugs, except for two boys who were removed because of abuse and neglect.
“It’s not that the parents don’t love them or don’t care, but the drugs just get a hold on them and they just can’t get away. Addiction controls them,” Todd said.
Michelle said the pull of addiction is something she never fully understood until she encountered the mom of a 3-months-old girl.
Because of her many years of using drugs, she was referred to as a “career user” by some. She had also raised three now adult children.
“She loved that girl. Even though she was a drug user, she took such good care of her. Of all the ones we have gotten, she was the best who took care of her child,” Michelle said.
But ultimately the addiction was stronger.
The children who are placed in foster care often battle various mental health disorders as a result of neglect, drugs, abuse and more, such as reactive attachment disorder.
“That’s what Jaylea had when she first came,” Michelle said.
Working with Morrison County Social Services, both Todd and Michelle have seen the agency go above and beyond to reunite children with their parents.
“They give you ample opportunities to change to get them back, but it all falls on the parents. Often they’ll say it’s somebody else’s fault they’re using,” Michelle said.
If the children cannot be reunited with the parents, they may be placed with other family members. If no one wants to or is deemed unsuitable, the children can be adopted by others.
Of all the children who were placed with Todd and Michelle, only one family of three boys was reunited with their parents.
Although the family usually doesn’t take in children older than 10, the Johnsons have housed teenagers at times. They recall three teenagers they had once, who were very quiet and shy at first.
“We asked them what we could do to make them feel more comfortable here. She (one of the teens) said, ‘We just can’t be,’” said Michelle.
When asked why, it was because their family was “too normal” and when asked to clarify, Michelle said the answer broke their hearts.
“She said, ‘We’re not used to this. You have food in the fridge, you don’t fight all the time and you eat together,’” said Michelle.
It also quickly became clear that their definitions of a meal were different — often theirs only consisted of some type of condiment.
“They would eat onions on crackers with ketchup or barbecue sauce on them,” Michelle said.
One thing most foster children have in common when they arrive is to hoard food in their rooms, Todd said. They are simply not accustomed to eating at regular times, being able to eat as much as they want and not having to worry about when or where they will get their next meal, he said.
Todd and Michelle said it’s important to them to treat their foster children the same was as they do their own children, Jayden, Ashlan, Brenna, Cooper, Kenley and Jaylea.
“We want them to feel like they are a part of the family,” she said.
The number of children in Minnesota’s foster care system has increased from 11,500 in 2013 to 16,500 in 2018.
Julie Weisz, social worker at Morrison County Services, said there are currently 43 children placed in foster care in Morrison County. However, that number does not include all of those who are placed with a family member in other counties, who become licensed after the child(ren) have been placed.
Although some foster care homes are currently empty due to only taking in a certain age bracket, some children, such as teenagers, are harder to place.
According to Human Services Commissioner Tony Lourey, several myths about who can provide foster care may prevent people from considering it.
“You can be married or single, homeowners or renters, with or without children. You don’t need to have a lot of experience, because we will provide training and offer support along the way. What’s most important is a commitment to ensuring children will be safe, loved and well cared for in your home,” he said.
Those who want more information about becoming a licensed foster care provider, may call (320) 632-2951 to speak with an intake worker.