The Hamilton house where Mike and Nancy Huus have made their life is a place meant for kids.

The spacious five-bedroom home sits atop a hill just south of town. It’s where they raised their three children. It comes complete with a basement movie theater built by Mike and daughter Sara, stocked with boxes of treats from Costco and stuffed full of oversized beanbag chairs piled high with blankets.

When the last of the Huus kids left home after high school in 2008, their empty nester parents weren’t finished raising children.

“It was a month after Sara left and we knew we’d still like to be parents. We have our house to share, we’re connected in the community and at the school. We can help them,” said Nancy, sitting next to Mike at the kitchen table, pictures of their kids hanging above them.

The Huuses had been foster parents in the early 1990s, and so in 2008 began taking at-risk teen girls coming out of Riverside Youth Correctional Facility through the Dan Fox Family Care Guide Homes Program.

First as a licensed foster family through the state and now through Dan Fox, the Huuses have fostered 10 kids in all.

Families like the Huuses are hard to find in a state that has more than 2,000 children currently in foster care. At Dan Fox, which provides therapeutic foster care for area children, the waiting list is always longer than the number of foster families.

The Huuses take one girl at a time. After a match is made, they work to integrate her into their home, setting her up at school if she needs it, and helping her find a job among their many friends who own businesses in Hamilton.

Opening their home to foster children began as a way to share their love and energy. The devastating and unexpected loss of Sara, then 19, in a car accident three years ago has turned their work into more of a mission dedicated to her memory.

“We are responsible for someone else’s daughter. We are dedicated to that purpose. ... I always wished someone could have saved Sara for us,” Mike said.

***

Most children who need substitute care are placed into foster homes through the Child and Family Services Division of the Montana Department of Health and Human Services.

At Dan Fox, an admission committee decides which children will be admitted to the Youth Homes programs. Dan Fox programs offer therapeutic foster care, a more involved kind of care that combines a team of counselors, respite care providers and treatment managers who work closely with the foster family to help each child.

“The level of oversight and support is more intense,” said Erin Williams, Dan Fox Family Care Program director. “The goal is to help stabilize, heal and grow – see who these kids can become.”

Families are given a stipend for each child and health care costs are covered. They go through a suite of training programs and must be licensed by the state.

Once families are found and trained, the complicated process of pairing the right couple with a child begins.

On average, there are 15 kids approved for Dan Fox programs waiting for foster families. Some will go to guide homes, like the Huuses’, others will go to temporary foster care homes and yet more will be placed with the hope a foster family eventually can adopt the child.

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Glenn and Julie Stroh are hoping to adopt a young girl placed in their care last fall through Dan Fox. The Florence couple already adopted their son, now 17, after Julie met him while working at Watson Children’s Shelter in Missoula nine years ago.

Their foster daughter is sassy and sweet, the Strohs said, and still adjusting to being at a new home with rules and boundaries.

The adjustment period often presents challenges.

“Kids can get really, really angry. Cuss, steal, wreck things,” said Sara Fisher, a longtime treatment manager for Dan Fox who works with the Strohs.

“We’ve had all that,” Julie said of her foster children. “They ask, ‘If I don’t do this, will you send me away? How long am I going to stay here?’ They’re testing the waters.”

When times get tough, Glenn and Julie often turn to members of the Dan Fox team, who are available 24 hours a day. The team of therapeutic workers is a saving grace in some cases, the Strohs said.

The work of being a foster family isn’t a sensational thing, Williams said, where miracles happen overnight.

“Knowing foster care is work is important,” she said. “You can change the trajectory of someone’s life. ... There are so many positive things.”

The Strohs have experienced the joy of watching foster kids succeed as they grow with a new family. Both say the rewards outweigh the challenges.

“There’s a stereotype. People say, ‘You’ve got foster kids, there goes the neighborhood,’ ” Glenn said. “But they’re no different than any other kids. They’re testing the boundaries. It’s kids.”

***

Dan Fox placed three children into foster homes during the past month, a significant number. But recruiting qualified families to foster kids is a tough and never-ending job.

“It’s pretty intensive, the amount of work and marketing we do until we find qualified families,” Williams said. “If we can expand the pool, we can expand the opportunities for kids.”

Finding families to foster older children is particularly challenging, Williams said.

The kids who go to guide homes are between the ages of 14 and 17. They are all on parole and monitored through the Montana Department of Corrections.

The Huuses say taking on a foster child is a constant job that requires a lot of energy and 100 percent follow-through.

Making a connection with kids who have made plenty of mistakes is a delicate and challenging process, especially when they haven’t had adults to rely on or boundaries before, Nancy said.

“I think everyone has it in them to do the wrong things,” Mike said. “These kids aren’t labeled by us by any means. They just need a little guidance. ... It’s every day. You can’t be a role model one day and not the next.”

Mike is a retired firefighter who now runs Best Fire Equipment. Nancy fulfilled a dream after raising her kids and received a master’s of social work degree. Their work allows for a flexible schedule, so they can keep close track of their foster daughters.

“We have strong boundaries. They can be teenagers, but we have follow-through because they’re good at what they do, sometimes to their demise,” Nancy said.

They draw the line where behavior compromises the ability of the Huuses to ensure a foster daughter’s safety.

The girl currently living with the couple earned her GED at Riverside and now takes classes at Bitterroot College and works.

Recently, she helped them hook their computer up to their TV so they could watch their son, Mikey, umpire a baseball game in California.

That quality time when things are running smoothly is the best time to connect with kids, Mike said.

“I have my most successful moments when there’s no problems. We’re just sitting and you’re just talking. That bonding really makes a difference where there’s a more serious conversation. It all stems from those moments of nothing,” he said.

***

Foster parents need to have energy and they need to be committed. The Huuses think energetic empty nesters make some of the best foster parents.

For Mike and Nancy, success is when they see their kids take the opportunity to make the right decision.

One foster daughter was part of a group that burned down a school in Huntley Project. She came to them with a lengthy criminal record, having never lived in a stable home.

She was with them for 1 1/2 years while attending school and successfully holding a job in Hamilton.

“That’s the best-case scenario, is catching them doing the right thing,” Nancy said.

Mike and Nancy ran into one former foster daughter in Missoula recently. They chatted and agreed they should catch up more often.

“Nancy said, ‘We’re friends, we should stay in touch,’ ” Mike said. “She said to us, ‘Friends? We’re family.’ ”

Reporter Jenna Cederberg can be reached at 523-5241 or at jenna.cederberg@missoulian.com.

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