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Portage woman a mother to more than 400 children
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Portage woman a mother to more than 400 children

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PORTAGE — Janice Wozniak has six cribs, one in every room of her ranch-style home, neatly stacked clothing in sizes infant to 5T and a basement full of toys.

Wozniak, 73, is well-prepared for the job she has held over the last 45 years —providing foster care to 400 babies and toddlers.

The children she has taken into her Portage home through the years include those with drug and alcohol addiction, those burned and abused, those medically challenged and those brought to her home in the dead of night.

"God has put the love of babies in my heart," Wozniak said.

On a recent weekday, Wozniak cuddled close to her a 2-month-old baby boy, while keeping her eyes on an 18-month-old toddler boy, whose attention focused on visitors, "Sesame Street" and his favorite toys.

Wozniak said the toughest part of being a foster parent is taking care of youngsters in their earliest days and then handing them back to their biological or adoptive parents usually around age 2.

"Once they leave, I rarely see them again. That's the sad part. I miss them," Wozniak said.

She recalls past farewells to her young charges in which she and her late husband, Henry Wozniak, would close the door and both break down in tears.

"We had some of them since birth, and we're their mom and dad until they leave with new people who will be their parents. Once they leave, you have to let go. You worry about them, dream about them and hear them cry and realize they are not here. It's not easy. It's very traumatic on our family," Wozniak said.

She said God gave her the perfect husband when she and Henry married in 1967. She lost him April 22 when he died due to complications from a fall.

"He was the perfect husband with all the little ones. It was so sad when he passed because he did all the cooking and babysitting. When you would see Henry he was in his recliner with three little ones on his lap," Wozniak said.

And although Wozniak has no intention of retiring from her foster care job, she does intend to go from taking care of up to five children to two or three.

"(Foster care) is the love of my life. I'll have to slow down a little because my husband is not here," she said.

Wozniak grew up in Portage and knew at age 8 that she wanted to become a foster care parent.

"There was a young couple that were foster care parents in my church when I was growing up, and I admired them. I remember thinking that I'd love to do that when I grow up," she said.

After graduating from high school, Wozniak got a job at U.S. Steel and met Henry on a blind date.

The two got married and had two of their own biological children: James and Jodi. They later adopted two more children, Krissi and Daniel.

The Wozniaks signed up for the foster care program in 1975.

Having foster care "siblings" around her is something Jodi Barnard, 46, said was second nature for her.

Barnard was only a year old when her parents signed up for the program.

"This was life for us. None of my friends could compete with that. I was always thrilled to share that my parents had all these foster children," Barnard said.

And through the years of fostering other babies and children, it wasn't always easy for her parents, she said.

"When (the children) are alcohol- or drug-addicted, they have problems," Barnard said.

Her parents dealt with children who pulled down blinds, pulled off baseboards from the wall and even took dressers apart.

"They can be very destructive," Barnard said.

Krissi VanMeter, 41, said she was adopted by the Wozniaks as a drug-addicted baby, but she soon became "daddy's little girl" and a beloved member of the family.

"They loved everyone. They give wholeheartedly, and they always have. They spoiled all of us," VanMeter said.

She and Barnard said they plan to spoil their mom on Mother's Day, including treating her to her favorite chicken salad from Marilyn's Bakery in Hobart.

Wozniak said she generally has a house full of family members, including her mom, but this year, due to COVID-19 concerns, the annual get-together may be different.

"I wanted to have them all here, but my 92-year-old mom is at her own home, and we're protective of her," Wozniak said.

Gallery: Recent arrests booked into Lake County Jail

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