Duncan Gregory is full of what might be called "Things Dads Say."
“When you’re doing what you love, you’ll never work a day in your life.”
“There are never enough right reasons to do the wrong thing.”
“Put away the rest of those dishes, sweep the floor, take out the garbage.”
That last one was actually directed to one of his foster kids during an interview last week.
For a decade now, Gregory has opened his Duluth home to children in need of one and offered them the tools they need — not just to survive but to grow and overcome adversity. More than 20 children ages 5 to 18 have benefited from his care, and that’s not including the 500 or so young lives he’s influenced at his day job working at the Bethany Crisis Shelter.
“I just feel like giving kids the opportunity so they can succeed is very, very important. I often take the ones nobody else wants to deal with,” he said. “You know, it’s great for me as well. I’m the one that’s been blessed, having the opportunity to impact lives — you can’t ask for better than that.”
Foster parents are needed now more than ever as the opioid crisis continues to sweep across the Northland and the nation, leaving broken homes in its wake.
“We have many children going into foster care, and reunification is taking longer than in past years,” said Julie Anderson, a social worker at St. Louis County Public Health and Human Services. “A lot of foster parents end up adopting, or having permanent foster children, and are unable to take more. There's a constant need for new foster parents.”
On a day that may sting for some while others celebrate, Gregory reflected on how fostering fits into Father’s Day.
“Fathers come in many shapes and sizes,” he said. “I think a lot of times as adults our expectations for kids are high. It’s our job to kind of come down and meet them where they’re at and help them grow.”
'An increased need'
Growing up in the Chicago area, it was Gregory’s mother who provided the structure and discipline that kept him and his siblings on track.
“I come from a broken home myself, my father spent much of his life incarcerated,” he said. “My mom raised seven kids and got her master’s degree — what more motivation do I need than that?”
Now 55, Gregory originally planned to spend just a few years at Bethany. He’s been there 20 years now.
“As my mom always said, 'That’s the difference between your plan and God’s plan.'”
Foster care exists for when things may not be going according to plan. Whether it’s a voluntary placement while parents get their lives on track or a removal by law enforcement or social services, fostering is a safety net that catches the most vulnerable at their most vulnerable.
“Some foster parents are also amazing mentors to biological parents,” Anderson said.
St. Louis County has one of the highest rates of out-of-home child placements, according to state data. In 2017 there were 1,265 children and young adults — more than half of whom were 8 or younger.
While there are many cases of short-term stays, a more common placement lasts anywhere from six to 24 months.
“Generally, out-of-home care placements are lasting longer on average (substance-related cases tend to stay open longer). All of this has contributed to more children in out-of-home care, and subsequently, an increased need for foster parents,” according to the Department of Human Services.
Gregory has been caring for one of his three foster kids for several years now, but eventually that journey will end — something he has learned to cope with as so many children have come in and out of his life.
“People who do foster care have a really special heart, to be able to love a child, welcome them into their home and most times say goodbye to them after a period of time,” Anderson said.
Taking the next step
Jerry Burnes and his wife have fostered a dozen children since 2015, but this year Father’s Day will be different — they formally adopted a 12-year-old and a 10-year-old at the end of May.
“Sitting in the courtroom when we adopted them was one of the most amazing experiences I’ve ever had,” Burnes said. “It was a lot harder than we anticipated — it was a lot harder than the kids anticipated — but overall the process is worth it.”
Burnes, the editor of the Mesabi Daily News, was getting emotionally exhausted by the revolving door of children coming in and out of their lives and sought to make the jump to adoption, which ended up taking about six months from placement to official.
He couldn’t put his finger on how things are different this time, but they are. Finally, it’s forever — growing pains and all.
“We’re learning a lot more than I thought we would about social media and technology,” he said with a laugh. “And shortly after we decided we were going to do this, we had that 'oh-crap' moment when we realized one is going to be in college in six years.”
No matter where they grow up, it happens fast.
'Know your own limitations'
In the Gregory household, it’s work before play.
Bedtimes were a bit relaxed recently in that glorious stretch between the end of the school year and the start of summer school, but now it’s time to put those phones away a little earlier.
“It’s not about discipline for their behaviors, it’s about walking them through their choices and helping them to see the light at the end of the tunnel and to solve their own problems,” Gregory said. “We want to empower them to do that.”
Foster parents have support through social services and the county — what Gregory calls the “village” that helps raise the kids in need. But in one way he is fairly unique. Among single foster parents in Minnesota, just 9 percent are men.
That’s not that different from single parents overall, in Gregory’s experience.
“There are a lot of single parents I deal with, and very rarely are they men,” he said. “Those that are, they are working hard to make a positive impact in their life.”
Many of the kids Gregory has fostered are now well into adulthood, and he says some may have needed more than foster care — he doesn’t take it personally. He uses it as a teachable moment.
“You need to know your own limitations,” he said. “I have to tell my boys sometimes, let’s not talk about this yet, I’m still dealing with my own emotions. And now they can tell me that.”
Still, Gregory knows the stakes are high. If foster care or other elements of “the system” fails these kids, the next stop is gangs, crime and homelessness, he said.
Being a parent — foster, adoptive, biological or otherwise — can make all the difference.
“To the world, you are one person,” Gregory said. “But to one person, you might be the world.”
How to become a foster parent
The next foster parent orientation at the St. Louis County Government Services Center, 320 W. Second St. in Duluth, is from 8 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. June 28. A relative orientation will be held June 26 at 11:30 a.m. Contact Hannah Checketts at 218-733-2940 or firstname.lastname@example.org to register.