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Need for foster, adoptive parents highlighted by area families

By AUSTIN SVEHLA  Nov 15, 2021

The number of displaced youths across Northeast Nebraska has grown, resulting in an increased need for temporary and permanent home placements across the area.

Behavioral Health Specialists, which serves a 26-county area in Northeast and North Central Nebraska, is hoping to find homes for its growing number of displaced children.

Ricci Benson, the foster care director for BHS in Norfolk, said the agency supports about 35 licensed foster homes and 30 relative kinship homes. Between the COVID-19 pandemic dissuading families from fostering kids, and families running out of room to take in more children, BHS has found itself looking for help.

Another reason for a rise in displaced youths, Benson said, is the rise in adult drug arrests, which are categorized as child neglect. The difficulty in finding homes for displaced kids also may be attributed to the misconception that displaced children are “problem children.”

“They think our kids are scary. At the end of the day, they’re kids that are going to the same schools and living in the same community as every other kid,” Benson said. “We pair that stigma with foster care kids, and it turns a lot of prospective parents away.”

Benson said a swath of displaced youths do deal with mental health struggles because of trauma they endured in their previous homes. While some kids carry “extra baggage” at the fault of their previous guardians, she said, every child offers families the potential for success.

One such success story is that of Gary and Roxie Hilkemann of rural Norfolk, who have four adopted children and three grown biological kids.

The Hilkemanns’ oldest son was diagnosed with bipolar disorder as a freshman in high school in the early 2000s and, because of that, the Hilkemanns found a schooling placement that accommodated his needs.

The eldest Hilkemann child was enrolled in social services through Envision of Norfolk as a way to allow him to experience an environment other than the regular classroom-style setting.

The Hilkemanns developed a relationship with Envision and, shortly thereafter, began housing youths with special needs. The family had legal guardianship of one child for five years, and Roxie Hilkemann credited that experience to the family’s desire to continue fostering.

After that five-year stint, Hilkemann said, the family started taking placements from the state through BHS, which is how they got into contact with Benson around 2004 or 2005.

The Hilkemanns continued taking in youths and eventually decided to adopt. They’re now the parents of four adopted girls.

The two girls who joined the family in 2011, Ariana and Erin, were ages 3 and 1 when the Hilkemanns adopted them. Ariana had been placed with the family almost two years prior, Hilkemann said, and Erin was placed with the family shortly after birth. The Hilkemanns wanted to do anything they could to keep the biological sisters in the same family.

“I always felt that any siblings that moved into our home should always be kept together,” Hilkemann said. “They need to have that closeness. I never wanted kids to be separated, and I always felt that when they were in our home, they were a part of our family.”

Roxie said she and Gary discovered Ariana and Erin through the girls’ biological father and uncle, whom the Hilkemanns had fostered several years prior.

But the Hilkemann adoptions didn’t stop there.

In 2017, the family adopted 2-year-old Sophie after fostering her since she was an infant. Not long after that, the family adopted Sammantha, Sophie’s biological sister.

Hilkemann called the family’s experience with fostering and adopting “rewarding.” She encouraged those who are hesitant about taking in kids to give it a chance.

“You need to go for it. You need to try it,” she said. “It’s a lot of hard work, but it’s very rewarding. Whether these children eventually go back home to their biological parents or not, they still need to know they are worthy and lovable no matter what. A lot of these kids feel it was something they’ve done that caused them to be removed from their homes, and we need to show them that that’s not the case.”

Another Northeast Nebraska family adopted a boy, now 7, in September. The couple, Crystal and Ryan, wished not to give their last name in an effort to protect their son’s identity.

Crystal and Ryan have an 11-year-old biological daughter but have always wanted to expand their family. Crystal is an early childhood special education teacher, where she said she’s seen “wonderful, beautiful children who need homes.”

The couple wanted to start fostering a child for whom they could provide a permanent home, so they started taking classes in the spring of 2018 through BHS to become licensed foster parents.

Crystal said she was surprised that she was able to convince Ryan to foster a child. In 2019, the couple’s decision to take in a child was affirmed when Crystal experienced health issues that would have presented risks if she were to get pregnant.

The boy they later adopted had been placed in a separate home with a biological sibling, and that family had planned to adopt the boy. But that plan fell through, Crystal said, opening the door for Crystal and Ryan to foster him.

“It worked out perfectly that he got bounced to this home,” she said. We met him, and the next weekend, he moved in with us.”

After about 11 months of fostering the boy, the couple were able to legally adopt their son on Sept. 1.

Crystal said their son had endured a traumatic at-home life while he lived with his biological parents. The boy’s previous struggles created a trying experience at times for Crystal and Ryan, but BHS, she said, helped guide them through the process.

“It’s been a crazy year. We’ve had lots of ups and downs, as getting a child with trauma is never easy,” Crystal said. “But there are so many opportunities to seek out professional resources, and our experience has gotten better every week.”

Benson said that while reunification of youths and their biological parents is BHS’s primary goal, willing foster parents aren’t discouraged from adopting the children they take in. About 45% of foster kids in BHS’s service end up being adopted, she said.

The demographic most in need of finding placements right now is teenagers, Benson said. Taking in adolescents can be scary for anyone, she said, but teenagers are often the most faithful to their families.

“Our teenagers are so very loyal to their foster families,” she said. “They might carry a lot of extra baggage from things their parents did, but they’re just typical kids.”

Those wishing to become licensed foster parents are required to complete background checks, fill out paperwork and take courses, but Benson said families are paid to take in foster children.

People may foster in relative kinship homes and avoid going through as strenuous of a process as licensed foster parents complete.

BHS is inviting area residents to take in foster kids in any facet.

“It’s just rewarding to be able to touch a child’s life and let them know that there’s people who care,” Benson said. “At the end of the day, everybody wants to have someone who cares and shows up for them.”

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Looking to help?

To enroll in foster or adoptive care programs through Behavioral Health Services, contact Ricci Benson at or 402-379-0270.

New facility will bring Behavioral Health Specialists under one roof

By AUSTIN SVEHLA  - Oct 13, 2020

Behavioral Health Specialists provides comprehensive care to clients in need of mental health assistance, family care services and substance abuse recovery. 


Currently, Behavioral Health Specialists operates in three separate facilities in Norfolk. The organization has purchased a 45,000-square-foot facility at 1824 and 1900 Vicki Lane to both expand its services to meet the increasing needs of clients, as well as make each of its services available at the same facility.


“Right now, we’re in Phase I of construction, and our short-term residential substance abuse is going to go from 16 beds to 24 beds, as well as six additional detox beds,” executive director Jay Fleecs said. “That will be completed by the end of November.”


A nursing home previously occupied the building that Behavioral Health Services now owns, and Fleecs said the model of the former nursing home provided BHS with a perfect fit that will help the organization more easily fulfill its objectives.


Behavioral Health Specialists offers a wide range of programs, which include: outpatient care, psychological care, employee assistance, after-hours emergency services, community support, crisis response, foster care, home studies, family support and intensive family preservation.


Fleecs said he is grateful for the partnership with the United Way because it allows Behavioral Health to provide proactive mental health and substance abuse services. The organization’s programs have a waiting list, and he said they are always looking for ways to expand to meet those needs.


“The whole expansion plan simply fits Behavioral Health’s business model,” Fleecs said. “The entire move is really a win-win situation. Over 100 people have contributed in 2020 to the health and well-being of hundreds of people seeking comprehensive services at Behavioral Health. The need for our services is constant, and we’re grateful to organizations like the United Way who help us provide for clients in the area.”


Behavioral Health Specialists


Administrators: Jay Fleecs, executive director


What specific services does your agency provide and who generally does it serve?


We serve all of Northeast Nebraska, and we epitomize the meaning of behavioral care and family services. We have two short-term residential, substance abuse facilities — one in Columbus and one in Norfolk. We also have mental health and substance use disorder outpatient services. Another provision of ours is community support, and what that does is it helps people find a job, which they typically get after their short-term residency. We have foster care, and that’s a very important part of what we do.


In what ways does the United Way assist you?


The United Way assists us in the care line. The care line is a crisis response line and gives somebody the ability to talk to a therapist at any time if needed. The United Way helps fund that crisis response, and there’s a limited amount of funds for that crisis response. Our crisis line is 24/7, and its main source of funding is the United Way.


What are some of the new or ongoing needs that your agency is facing?


Substance abuse is very common, and the struggle with mental health is a major thing, especially with COVID. We’ve seen an increase in clients over the last several months because of circumstances many people have faced during the pandemic.


Share a brief anecdote about how your agency has had an impact on the community as a whole or an individual who has been served:


As a whole, our mission is to get people to be a productive member of the civil society from start to finish. We communicate in the substance abuse treatment centers how to find a job, how to help clients be dependent on themselves. Our main objective is to get somebody back to being a member of the civil society, keep them there, assist them outside our doors and continue to assist their needs. We make it a mission of ours to help clients in any way we can, whether they’re under our roof or not.


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Editor’s note: This is one of a series of articles highlighting agencies that receive funding from the Norfolk Area United Way.

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