Foster dad always saw kids ‘worth saving’

Published 9:04 am Sunday, July 21, 2013

By Marino Eccher

St. Paul Pioneer Press

LAKEVILLE — Give him your troubled and your troublemakers, the ones on the fast track to no good. The ones with drug problems and rap sheets. The ones nobody else seems to want.

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For 37 years, Bill Feidt has taken them all.

Feidt has ferried them to probation hearings, Alcoholics Anonymous and even the dentist.

He’s taken them in for a few months or a few years. He’s taken them in at 1 a.m. when they’re acting up somewhere else. He’s put them to work on his Lakeville hobby farm and called them “sir,” even when they call him four-letter words.

He’s seen them off to college, to the Marines — and if things went wrong, to prison, from where they send letters and call him collect. He’s one of the few people who will answer.

Soon, he’ll see the last ones off. The 72-year-old Feidt is retiring this summer after nearly four decades as a foster parent. Those who know him describe him as even-handed, compassionate, fair and tough, wise from experience — and, most of all, irreplaceable.

Feidt isn’t sure about all of that, calling himself just one piece of a much larger support system. But he’s sure about the philosophy that’s guided him along the way.

“God don’t make trash,” Feidt said. “These kids are worth something, and they’re worth saving.”

Decades ago — before he became the most sought-after foster parent in Dakota County, before his hobby farm in rural Lakeville became a sanctuary for wayward boys — Bill Feidt needed saving.

He was “a misguided guided missile” from south Minneapolis, as he puts it. He was intimately familiar with the judicial system. As an adult, he sold cars; as a teenager, he stole them.

His home life was stable enough but plagued by alcohol issues. At 18, he joined the Marines Corps Reserves at the nudging of the court system.

It instilled in him a sense of discipline and routine he had lacked.

But it didn’t derail his own burgeoning alcohol abuse. After five years in the military, “I was still out performing,” he said. “I had a full-time job, I was paying taxes, I was being a human being, but my behavior was still a little dippy.”

He found himself in and out of rehab more than once. Finally, at age 32, while climbing a flight of stairs in yet another treatment facility during yet another low point, “I had this epiphany,” he said.

“It occurred to me,” he said, “that when I was looking in the mirror, I might have been looking at the problem.”

That was the last time.

A few clean years later, Feidt was sitting in a new house in Lakeville, looking out the window onto a generous yard. It seemed like an awful lot of space and comfort.

He and his wife found themselves thinking: “We had a lot more to give.”

The first boy came from Scott County. His home was as broken as it could be: His father was dead and his mother was in prison for killing him.

The boy showed up with a horse in tow. It was one of his last worldly possessions. The child and the horse, Feidt recalls, “were a package.”

Feidt had called the county saying he had extra room in his home. It was just before his daughter Laura was born. He asked if they might have an adolescent he and his wife could take in.

Before anything was arranged, Feidt disclosed his history with alcoholism and ongoing recovery.

“I was kind of thinking that would cause them some apprehension,” he said. Instead, “it seemed to accelerate things.”

That was in 1976. Feidt “thought it would be one kid.”

It wasn’t.

There was another, and another and another.

Over the decades they’ve reached a few hundred — Feidt lost track of the exact count. He’s licensed for four at a time and is usually full or close to it. Right now, he has three teens staying with him.

Some of them, like the first, are placed with him via county social services because their home lives are unstable, unsafe or broken down. Many others come from the juvenile court system, often as an alternative to a more severe step such as juvenile detention.

Stays range from a few days for boys on short-term placement to a few years.

“He was taking these really difficult, challenging kids, and he was able to manage them,” said Matt Bauer, community corrections manager for Dakota County.

They are often adolescents who hadn’t been successful managing their behavior in even the most structured programs, Bauer said. Many of them have a history of clashing with adults and are on probation for offenses ranging from drug issues to robbery.

But prosecutors don’t always want to simply lock them up.

Karen Henke, a prosecutor in Dakota County who handles juvenile cases, has sent many teens to Feidt.

His home is “one of our few alternatives to placement in a juvenile detention center,” she said. And if they can’t make it in his home, “that says something.”

Feidt and his wife divorced in 1988. He sold the house and took a break for a few years. But when he bought a new house — again in rural Lakeville, again with more room than he needed — he looked out the window and again decided he had more to give. He got in touch with Dakota County and started taking in boys again.

The home, at first glance, looks like the home of any other 72-year-old grandfather who retired in the countryside. It’s a hobby farm on 10 acres, with a chicken coop in the yard, a minivan out front and a news report on the stock market playing on the television in the background.

But there’s also a pair of walkie-talkies, a camera system to keep an eye on blind spots and a motion detector that tells Feidt if someone is coming or going from the property.

He had the last feature installed after he awoke one night to a disturbance outside and came down to find what looked like an impromptu gang gathering underway in his driveway.

“They were coming out here to extricate one of my adolescents,” he said. “I said to myself, ‘I think this is probably the last time I’m going to come walking out that door and not know exactly what I’m walking into.’ “

In spite of the extra security, the house is more like a retreat than a prison.

“It’s just a very peaceful setting,” said Ashley Stevens, a Dakota County social worker who’s worked with Feidt. “It’s a serene environment.”

Feidt thought so too, giving rise to the farm’s nickname: Serenity Hill.

The farm setting lends itself well to the kinds of routines — chores, family meals, reasonable bedtimes — that at-risk teens need.

As an added bonus, “kids don’t know where the heck they are,” said Greg Sexton, a county probation officer and longtime friend of Feidt’s.

The occasional rescue attempt notwithstanding, “it makes it harder to run away or have other kids come over with weed or do other stupid stuff,” he said.

For Zack Brown, anything that made it harder to get into trouble was probably a good thing.

The Inver Grove Heights 18-year-old had struggled with drugs, trouble at home and running afoul of the law. He came to Feidt through the courts.

When he heard Feidt had a military background, he was apprehensive that he might be going head-to-head with a certified tough guy.

Instead, he found Feidt to be friendly, well mannered and relatable. He talked openly about his alcoholism and staying sober. He called him “partner,” spoke to him like an adult and listened to what he had to say.

“He’s kind of the kid whisperer,” said Laura Feidt-Westrude, Bill’s daughter. “He doesn’t speak to them as their superior. He speaks their language.”

Feidt put Brown to work around the hobby farm, letting him drive the lawn mower when things went well and sending him out to clean up after the horses when they didn’t.

It was the logical extension of one of Feidt’s many favorite sayings: “[Expletive] behavior deserves [expletive] jobs.” But Feidt always shoveled with him to remind him they were in it together.

When Brown really pushed Feidt’s buttons, he met “Freddy” — Feidt’s nickname for his stern, scary side.

“He’d always say ‘don’t piss me off or you’ll see Freddy,’” Brown said. “I only saw him once, and it wasn’t good.”

At one point, after Brown kept getting kicked out of treatment, Feidt told him he was completing the next one or he wasn’t coming back.

But his goal wasn’t to shout or threaten Brown into submission. Instead, it was to catch him when he was doing well, said Ashley Stevens, Brown’s social worker.

“He’s a great cheerleader for the kids,” she said.

After Brown got his first medallion from Alcoholics Anonymous, Feidt gave him a marble. He told Brown if he ever relapsed, he was to take the marble, throw it as far as he could and shout “I’ve lost my marbles!” at the top of his voice.

“He always said this: he’s got real simple solutions for complex problems,” Brown said. “He’s got real intelligent ways of making you do the right thing.”

Brown was in and out of Feidt’s home for three years. While there, he found he liked working on the heavy machinery. Feidt encouraged him to make a career out of it. This fall, he’ll enroll in Dakota County Technical College to study diesel mechanics.

Getting Brown and other teens to that point isn’t a one-person job. The list of people Feidt credits for his successes includes teachers, social workers, school bus drivers who put up with rowdy youngsters, local doctors and dentists who treat his teens despite imperfect insurance, local employers who give them jobs despite imperfect resumes.

“This isn’t a one-man Mecca,” he said. “I’m not the Lone Ranger out here.”

He has a hired helper around the farm, a woman who helps keep things in order, runs the show when he’s away and “adds the softer, gentler touch to the house.”

And he has his daughter Laura, who grew up with foster teens as her older brothers and now hosts them for holidays when they have nowhere else to go. Some of them have never had a birthday party or a Christmas present until they’re sitting around her table with her own children.

“People don’t have a clue that these kids are out there,” she said. “They just lump them all together as being bad kids, and they’re not.”

She and her father fondly remember one young man who came to Bill’s house in full-blown Goth regalia — black nail polish, a trench coat, a cape. He was whip-smart — and had a keen interest in guns, knives and manipulating adults into thinking he was about to go off the deep end.

“You’d get a call once a week from teachers that were just terrorized,” Laura said.

Laura implored to teen to stop, saying he was too smart for that sort of thing. Bill just laughed at him … and worked on him.

Over the course of three years, the cape, the nails and the attitude faded out. The teen went from Feidt’s home to the Marine Corps and wound up training bomb-sniffing dogs. He and Feidt talk regularly.

Not every story ends that way. Feidt keeps a file of letters from prison from those who didn’t turn it around.

“When they’re incarcerated,” he said. “I become their only pen pal.”

In the darkest moments, he’s had sheriff’s deputies show up at his door with death notices for teens for whom he was the last known address, and he’s had to tell parents their sons died of drug overdoses.

“He’s not a miracle worker,” said Tom Bergstrom, a Dakota County foster care licensing worker. “He doesn’t turn around every kid, but he gives every one of them a fair shake.”

Bergstrom said people constantly ask him: “Does Bill have an opening? Does Bill have an opening?”

It’s not just because of Feidt’s reputation for results. He’s a scarce resource. Dakota County has about 150 licensed foster care providers but only 20 to 25 beds available for teenagers, Bergstrom said.

Few people are willing to take on adolescents, and fewer still at-risk teens.

Feidt has said he’s going to retire before but has always been drawn back.

This time, he means it. He’s on his second hip replacement and wants to step back, relax and take his nap for as long as he wants, without doing bed checks in the middle of the night or responding to meltdowns, crises or shenanigans.

He doesn’t know exactly what he’ll do but knows it’s time “to spend more time doing something else.”

Dakota County officials say he’ll be missed.

“We don’t have anybody like Bill,” said Mark Oster, a children’s mental health supervisor.

Henke, the juvenile prosecutor, has been “wondering when we’ll have a Bill Feidt day, because there’s nobody else who’s going to be able to take his place.”

Laura is a little worried about him. She’s not sure how he’ll pass the time after he’s no longer on call around the clock.

It’s a marked shift from her reaction the last time he stepped away, during his divorce. Back then, she hoped he wouldn’t go back. She was a teenager and wanted a normal household.

But she could tell he wasn’t done.

“I truly believe that this is what he was meant to do,” she said, “and I believe that he feels the same way.”