At age 9, Manilan Houle remembers thinking, “I can’t be here.”
He put on his shoes and started running down the road to a friend’s house. Panicked, he told them he needed a place to stay because he had been locked out.
That wasn’t the case.
Houle, now 20, spent the majority of his life in and out of foster care. These were the most difficult times in his life, but he found a path to uncover hope, compassion and family. He shared a glimpse into those memories.
In middle school, Houle was put in long-term placement care with Kevin and Kelly Erickson. That was the first time he felt safe, a tinge of normalcy in his life.
Houle said most times he didn’t feel safe in his own home. After one particular altercation, he knew he had to escape.
Northwood Children’s Services was contacted the next day, after Houle didn’t come home that night.
“That’s the first time I remember being placed in foster care,” Houle said.
Children’s services determined the home wasn’t safe for children. Houle and his two younger siblings were taken from the home and temporarily placed in foster care.
Goal to unite
As the months passed, Houle’s family had to abide by a certain set of rules if they were to be reunited.
James Ellingson, a foster care licensure for St. Louis County, focuses on finding safe homes for children in foster care. He emphasized the importance of reuniting Minnesota families.
“It’s called unification,” Ellingson said.“The case manager’s job is to help the parent get the child back.
“The main goal is to keep kids safe and keep families together,” Ellingson said. “That’s why we work hard on placing them with relatives or family friends, so they don’t have to live with a complete stranger.”
The time needed for parents to be reunited with their child is usually one year. In certain circumstances, this time can be extended.
During this period, Ellingson said, parents can focus on getting the help they need. This can range from mental health therapy, to drug rehabilitation, to anger management.
“The couple of months were time to make me feel safe again, which is kind of how it is when you’re in foster care, especially when you’re young,” Houle explained. “They want to reunite families.”
Houle and his siblings were reunited with their biological mother and stepfather a few months later.
'I would put on this mask'
Houle said things were looking up for a bit, but there were still daily struggles. His first priority was his two younger siblings — he had to make sure they were OK. He made food for them every day and made sure they reached school every morning.
“My mom had been doing well, but it was always up and down,” Houle said. “When things started to get bad again, it went downhill fast."
“I started leaving the house at 5 a.m. I didn’t want to be there,” he said. “I knew I could get to school and focus on that.
“I would put on this mask, and no one else had to know what was going on,” Houle said. “But … it was also really painful because I would go to school and see all of these kids that seemed so successful.”
He tried to hide things from teachers because he didn’t want to leave his siblings. With that weight on his shoulders, he fell behind in school.
Houle was determined to keep his head above water, but keeping the peace was beyond his control.
Another altercation occurred in Houle’s home. He left and called the police.
Houle and his siblings were taken out of the home and placed in foster care once again. After a few years, Houle was separated from his younger brother and sister.
During this time, Houle was placed in and out of foster homes until he was in middle school.
Houle was never adopted for a number of outlying factors. Ellingson said that isn’t out of the ordinary.
“It’s harder for older children to be adopted for a couple of reasons,” Ellingson said. “One reason could be that they have more of an established relationship with their parent.”
A new family
Although Houle was never adopted, he considers his foster parents a part of his family. At age 13, he was placed in long-term placement care with the Ericksons.
“They were so welcoming and awesome,” Houle said.
Kevin and Kelly Erickson were beyond happy to have another child moving into their home.
“It was really exciting for us,” Kevin Erickson said. “I remember feeling so thrilled that there was a new child moving into our home."
“We got the opportunity to watch them grow,” he said. “We wanted to do whatever we could to make sure we could be the best parent figures in their life.”
At the time Houle moved in, the Ericksons were taking care of two other children. He said the adjustment was overwhelming, as it is for most children.
“Both the father and mother figure were present,” Kevin Erickson explained. “This usually wasn’t the case in their homes."
“Or, they had a bed with sheets on it," he said, "they were baffled by it and would often be on top of all of the covers.” Kevin Erickson said he remembers the nights he peeked into the kids’ rooms to make sure they were covered up.
As Kevin Erickson looked around his living room, his heart was filled with the cherished memories they all spent together.
“We would have special traditions and really make the most out of holidays and family vacations,” Erickson said. “We would ridiculously hide Easter eggs, carve pumpkins, and the kids really had a blast with it.”
Erickson said the foster care moniker was dropped rather quickly. They weren’t just his foster kids. They were his kids.
“Manilan and my wife, Kelly, got along so well — they always talked together,” he said. “They had fun and formed a really close bond."
“We were blessed to have an extended family that was so accepting of all of the kids. They included them as grandchildren, nieces, nephews and cousins.”
More than a candy bar
Kevin Erickson’s parents lived next door. His mom heard about Manilan moving in, so she came over to welcome him. She introduced herself as Grandma Lynn. She explained that if he ever needed anything, he shouldn’t be afraid to ask.
Houle instantly bonded with Grandma Lynn.
“She brought a Snickers bar, and at the time, I didn’t like Snickers bars,” Houle said. “I remember the first night I was really sad. I looked over at the Snickers bar, and it was like it grew wings and a halo. I had to eat it, and to this day, Snickers are my favorite candy bar.”
It was such a simple gesture, but it meant the world to Houle.
During the five years he lived with the Ericksons, there were many of those simple gestures.
Without a doubt, Kevin Erickson and Houle consider themselves a part of each other’s family.
“We reserved 'I love you' for a special time with each one of the kids,” Kevin Erickson explained. “Once that bridge is crossed, you realize that bond is cemented.”
“Manilan, along with our other children, will be our forever kids,” Kevin Erickson said.
At age 18, Houle aged out of the foster care system. He graduated from Marshall School and moved out of the Ericksons’ home. He left Duluth for a short while to attend college. He has since returned to Duluth for work and family.