DULUTH — At age 16, everything Isaiah knew was in Detroit Lakes — especially his friends and his track and field coaches, whom he looked to as mentors.
But he agreed to leave all of that and move to an unfamiliar place for what he didn’t have: a mom and a dad.
“If they were willing to let me into their home, if they were willing to take a little risk, then I guess I was going to do the same thing, too,” said Isaiah, now 18 and a freshman at the University of Wisconsin-Superior.
In foster care since 13, Isaiah was living with boys around his age at a foster ranch, and he had seen some of them age out of the system.
“It’s a scary thing because they leave and they’re on their own and they do what they need to do to survive,” Isaiah said. “That’s the path I was heading down, too. You age out, and you’re completely on your own.”
It is scary, agreed Wendylee Raun, education program coordinator for MN ADOPT, a nonprofit that contracts with the state.
“The success rate for kids who age out of foster care is pretty grim,” Raun said. “There’s a lot of homelessness, and early pregnancy for the girls and drug abuse and sex trafficking. It’s an ugly thing.”
It’s not an uncommon danger. As of Nov. 1, 820 foster children were waiting for families, according to the Minnesota Department of Human Services. They range in age from infants to teenagers, but teens are hardest to place.
“The lower-number age group is the ones that most people want to adopt,” Raun said. “So those kids get placed much more quickly and easily than teens.”
The preference for adopting the children at an early age wasn’t necessarily shared by Scott and Amy Arntson.
In 2016, the Arntsons were seeing an empty nest in their future as daughter Ashleigh and son Devan neared graduation from Esko High School, where Scott is a teacher and coach.
“We both knew that we didn’t need to raise someone from infancy to love them any differently,” said Amy, who works as manager for physician quality at Essentia Health.
They had considered adoption before, but found the process overwhelming, the Arntsons said. This time, they worked with North Homes Children and Family Services, one of five private agencies that contracts with the state to enable families to adopt foster children.
“This way you have somebody telling you your need to do this, you need to fill out this form, and this is going to happen,” Scott said. “So the process was completely different.”
When it comes to teenagers, an adoption only happens when both parties are on board.
“Our philosophy is we’re finding families for children, not children for families,” Raun said.
Isaiah first came to the Arntson home for weekend visits near the end of 2016 and was still 16 when he moved in to spend the second semester of his junior year at Esko.
That June, shortly after turning 17, Isaiah was adopted, and he chose to take Arntson as his last name.
“This was a mutual decision,” Amy Arntson said. “This was both parties saying yes, we can do this.”
Added Scott, “When somebody says, ‘Yes, I want to be part of your family,’ that’s pretty powerful.”
Not only did Isaiah take the Arntsons’ name, he changed the way he referred to them.
“He took the step and said, ‘It just feels weird to call you Amy and Scott,’” Amy related. “Can I call you Mom and Dad?’ I’m like, ‘Yeah, absolutely.’”
Devan Arntson, now 20, was finishing his senior year at Esko when Isaiah was a junior. Devan now is a student at Concordia University in St. Paul. Ashleigh, now 21, already had begun her college career at Minnesota State State University Moorhead.
The Arntsons wouldn’t have gone ahead with the adoption unless the entire family was on board with it, Amy said.
Ashleigh’s only concern, she said, was getting to know her new younger brother while she was already away at school. But that worked out over time, Amy said.
In both his junior and senior years, Isaiah went to state in track and field for Esko. Now at UWS, he’s on the cross country and track and field teams, and he’s studying physical education with thoughts of eventually teaching in that field.
Wherever he goes, he’ll always have a place to come home to.
People had asked her if Isaiah would disappear from their lives once he turned 18, Amy related. She wasn’t sure, so she asked him. “He goes, ‘Mom, I just left everything to come here. Why would I leave again?’”
Scott doesn’t see Isaiah as any different than his other children, he said, and the rewards of parenting are the same either way. He doesn’t see what his family has done as anything special.
“We get the, ‘Oh, what a great thing you did,’” Scott related. “I don’t know. It seemed like our family was missing a piece, and he was the piece we were missing.”