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CLARKSVILLE, Iowa --- Kris and David Nelson enjoy being parents. So much so that after their two daughters grew up, the couple opened their home to foster children.

"We love family and feel this is something we can offer to others who need a caring family," said David Nelson, 62, a pastor.

No matter who the child is or how long they stay, the Nelsons want to show that all are loved and all are welcome. Hugs and encouraging words are given freely.

The Nelsons make time for creative activities like the New Year's "super sandwich" tradition, where fixings are piled high, Dagwood style.

David and Kris Nelson at the moment care for six children --- two adopted, four foster --- between 2 and 15 years old, plus former foster kids who come back to visit.

Now and then, the Nelsons, like other parents, need time to regroup and recharge, according to the couple's daughter, Andrea Nelson, 27, of Waterloo. Likewise, most kids enjoy some time away from their parents with a fun baby-sitter, she said.

But until last year, child care proved complicated for the Nelsons and remains a challenge for many of Iowa's 3,000 licensed foster families, according to Nancy Magnall of the Iowa Foster and Adoptive Parent Association.

If foster parents need to spend a night or more out of town, sans children, their options, with some exceptions, are limited. Iowa law requires foster children to stay with licensed foster parents, which means relatives and family friends likely don't qualify.

A respite care program introduced last year in four Northeast Iowa counties provides another option. The program --- the first and only of its kind in the state, according to the Iowa Department of Human Services --- trains adults 19 and older to provide short-term care to foster children in the foster home.

Foster parents and advocates applaud the initiative, which teaches respite care workers about the special needs of foster children and some of the intricacies of the system.

"It's more than just a baby-sitter," Magnall said. "It's a trained provider coming in and providing care for a time when the foster parents have to be absent."

Last year, the program trained and certified 14 respite care providers. Nine families participated and some utilized the service up to nine times.

Advocates hope to expand the resource, which is available primarily to families in Bremer, Butler, Grundy and Franklin counties.

Iowa rules regarding foster families are intended to prioritize children's safety, said Roger Munns, a spokesman for the Iowa Department of Human Services. The state sees potential in the respite care program and is reviewing its effectiveness, Munns added.

Advocates are seeking additional respite care candidates for upcoming training. The process involves a background check.

"And we are very careful," Magnall said. "We want this to be a success."

Associate professor Tammy Faux and the social work department at Wartburg College teamed up to offer the pilot program with the Allison Area Foster Parent Association. Wartburg students helped research and implement the end result, Faux said, and some trained as respite care workers.

The program allowed Andrea Nelson to become certified to look after her siblings and other members of the Nelson's "family of the heart." Her parents recently traveled to Decorah to celebrate a wedding anniversary, leaving the kids in Nelson's capable hands.

Prior to respite care, her parents struggled to find available foster families that were close to home.

"It was very time-consuming for my mom and stressful," Andrea Nelson said. " ... A lot of times my mom just wouldn't do things."

Larger foster families commonly have to split up children among several homes, which can upset kids with a backlog of traumatic life experiences already, Magnall said.

"(My parents) have really benefited from this program," Andrea Nelson said. "Our whole family has."

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