If Paige Anderson got flowers from all of her kids for Mother’s Day, she’d have a lot of flowers.

The Duluth Heights woman has three children: Addison, 22; Mercedes, 17; and Tyler, 15. Then there are all the foster children who have come through the single mom’s home in the past three and a half years.

“We were counting,” the 40-year-old said during an interview in the living room of her modest, two-story home. “I think I’ve had 27 total.”

In a sense, Anderson represents three generations of foster care:

  • She has been caring for up to five kids at a time.
  • Her older son spent the better part of a year of his early childhood in foster care.
  • And Anderson herself spent time in foster care during the teenage years of what she describes as a tumultuous childhood.

‘It’s come full circle’

“My mom was 15 and pregnant with me and had me right after she turned 16,” Anderson recalled. “And I kind of had a rough life. I was bounced all over the place. I don’t remember staying anyplace more than a year. We went state to state, town to town, and we lived in shelters. She did what she thought she had to do to keep a roof over our heads, but that put us in some really dangerous situations - domestic violence and the drug world and a lot of things.”

Anderson, who was pregnant with her first child at 18, acknowledges mistakes of her own as a teen and young adult. But her story has a happy ending - or perhaps it would be better to say a happy middle.

“It’s come full circle,” said Angie Skogstad, a youth program manager for Lutheran Social Service who has known Anderson since she was 16. “The fact that she with all of her craziness and trauma as a young adult and being in foster care and then having her own child go into foster care and now opening her doors to other kids in the community - I couldn’t be more proud. It warms my heart.”

‘I was angry’

Anderson entered the agency’s Bethany Crisis Shelter, which provides temporary housing for youth in troubled circumstances, when she was 16.

“My mom and I weren’t close,” she recalled. “I was angry with her for how my life was. I kind of rebelled a little bit.”

She spent about four months in the shelter and another seven months in a foster home before returning to her mother and younger brother. They moved to Colorado, where they had lived earlier, and where life was as chaotic as ever.

Anderson reunited with her sixth-grade sweetheart; he became Addison’s father. Her mother also entered a “bad relationship,” she said.

“He was pretty violent. He ended up actually trying to shoot at her on the main street. And I was pregnant. It’s kind of a whirlwind.”

Young and scared

Anderson moved in with an aunt who lived in a trailer, adapting part of the kitchen as her bedroom. She gave birth to Addison, but her mom’s situation was worsening. Eventually, a women’s shelter put Anderson, her mother and her son on a bus and they returned to Duluth.

“I started my life here with a suitcase that my mom and I and Addison shared, a baby blanket and a diaper bag,” she said. “And that was all I came to Minnesota with when I came back - as a young, scared mom with a 6-week-old baby.”

Anderson soon was living on her own in a progression of apartments. She wanted to save the world, she said, so she would let people move in, or she’d feed them or let them come in and take showers. Some became demanding, and when she did say no, they wouldn’t accept the answer.

Matters came to a head when one man broke into her apartment in what supposedly was a secure building.

“The guy was choking me,” she related. “The guy had me up against the wall, and I wasn’t breathing anymore and I was collapsing, and Addison woke up and saw the whole thing.”

Anderson went into hiding. At her request, Skogstad and her husband, Larry, went through the process of obtaining a foster care license so they could take Addison in for a while.

“He was pretty traumatized by (the assault), as was Paige,” Skogstad recalled. “And she kind of got to a point where I think she said, ‘I can’t do this anymore. I have to get my stuff together for my son.’ ”

The turnaround

Pregnant with her daughter and with Addison about to turn 5, Anderson said she decided it was time to use the resources available to her. She took advantage of classes available through Lutheran Social Service and soon started giving back - as a peer facilitator and as a speaker.

“You get good support and you learn from it,” Anderson said. “You need to choose to be a survivor and not a victim.”

Four years ago, Anderson was approached by another woman who was losing custody of her children. Anderson wasn’t licensed to take foster children, but she began the process, getting her license to care for up to five kids on Oct. 1, 2011. Before the end of the month, she was a foster mom.

At first, Anderson mostly took young children for short periods of time - 21 in the first year and a half, she said. Lately, more of her foster kids have been a little older, and they’ve stayed longer.

She cares for the children while working when she can as a health unit coordinator at Essentia Health-St. Mary’s Medical Center. She’s grateful, she said, that her employer is understanding about her need to schedule work time around the children’s needs.

Being a foster mom can be stressful and tiring, Anderson said, but it’s what she feels called to do.

“I got this last set of kids who are all older, and so they remember the trauma and they remember what adults have done with them or to them or lied to them,” she said. “They think everybody’s out to hurt them. It took seven months for one of my foster boys to let me hug him. He wouldn’t let anybody touch him. Seven months.”

The next step

Addison is married now and has children of his own, and a younger son, Tyler, is living with his dad. So Anderson’s household consists of her daughter, Mercedes, two foster boys who will leave in early June, a 5½-month-old foster daughter and boys Ronald, 11, and Toby, 8, whom Anderson is in the process of adopting.

The two boys, whose birth mother is deceased, originally came to Anderson as foster children and are with her for the second time. Last June, she said, a call came from the courthouse “saying the dad was having some problems in court, and he said I will only sign over my kids if Paige will take them.”

When she became a foster mom, Anderson never expected to adopt any of the children, she said.

“But at the time it felt right,” she said. “These boys had had a really hard life and had been exposed to a lot of things, and it just felt natural to me.”

The adoption process isn’t complete, but Anderson became the boys’ legal guardian in October. Their father has since died.

In the meantime, the tension between Anderson and her own mother - now 57 -  is in the past. Her mom is now her No.1 fan, Anderson said.

“I think she holds a lot of guilt for my life,” Anderson said. “And I said, ‘Mom, these experiences may not have been ideal, but had I not gone through that in my lifetime, I wouldn’t be the person I am today.’ ”

The experiences have made her forgiving and compassionate with a heart for people, and especially for kids, Anderson said.

And although it is now better directed, Anderson still has that impulse to save the world, she said.

“If I had the means to adopt all these kids that needed to be, I would.”

Need for foster parents continues

Despite a drive to recruit more foster parents earlier this year, St. Louis County still needs more adults willing to offer care.

“We have about 600 kids in foster care right now,” said Jessie Schunk, the county’s professional development coordinator for child foster care. “The problems continue to be very, very complicated, meaning kids are staying longer. So the need is continuing to grow.”

In February, when the News Tribune reported on the recruitment effort, Schunk said the county had 500 children living in foster care at any given time, with about 200 adults registered as foster parents. Although media coverage, billboards and mailings sparked inquiries, only 11 new foster homes have been added countywide since the beginning of the year.  

“As soon as they’re licensed, they’re full,” Schunk said.

Anyone interested in foster parenting can call Schunk at (218) 471-7793 or email childfostercare@stlouiscountymn.gov.