Rick Betzer went to Texas in 2004 to bring his new son, Dakota, into the family.
Rick and his wife, Tina, had both worked in the Idaho Department of Juvenile Corrections — Tina as a nurse, Rick as a therapy technician. They saw the effects of child neglect, and they wanted to do something about it.
After raising five biological children, the Betzers started serving as foster parents. (They fostered 43 children in all, according to a national award citation.) Eventually, they decided to adopt one of their foster children.
That started them down the path of expanding their family through adoption, focused particularly on children with disabilities, who are often very difficult to place in adoptive homes. They found a young boy through a program called “Wednesday’s Child,” and that’s what brought Rick to Texas.
But when he got to the facility where Dakota lived, the plans changed.
“They had another boy in the back room,” he said. “He was just there, in the dark, left alone. I went back and met him. I picked him up and went out front and said, ‘Start the paperwork. He’s coming home.’”
This story played out again and again. Eventually, the Betzers had adopted 16 children, most with disabilities.
‘They just fit’
So Rick brought home two sons instead of one. Del, the 5-year-old boy the Betzer family unexpectedly adopted that day, died eight years ago of illness. Though Del’s life was short, it was spent surrounded by a large family who loved him. Dakota still lives at home with the Betzers.
“They just fit,” Tina said, looking around at the half-dozen kids in the living room. “That’s just what we do. They’re very special kids with very special spirits.”
Rick and Tina have dedicated themselves to adopting, caring for and providing a loving home for their disabled children. They have arranged their entire lives around it.
They used to live in Ashton, but with space running out and hospitals too far away, they had to relocate. They purchased an old Mormon meeting house in Shelley, built in 1918, and turned it into a home suitable to raise the children with disabilities they have adopted, 10 of whom still live there. Classrooms were converted to bedrooms, an old gym into a therapy room. The chapel became the living room.
“When they knew we were interested in adopting children with special needs, we started getting calls,” Rick said. “A lot of these kids were considered unadoptable. People figured they would be put in a home, and they would live there until they died. That’s hard to see.”
“Nobody is unadoptable,” Tina said. “Everyone deserves to be special to somebody, to have that bond with parents and siblings. And to be cared for by people who love you.”
Finding a way
The Betzers find creative, thrifty ways to provide for their children’s needs. When the house needed an elevator, Rick and a friend found a forklift that was headed for the scrap yard. They repaired it and converted it into an elevator. Rick and Tina bought a used public transit bus from Oregon, and it has been converted so that all their children, including those in wheelchairs, can ride together. Rick is working to make adjustments to a donated hand-pedaled bicycle so that another of their children can use it.
Asked if he enjoys remodeling the home and tinkering with forklifts, bicycles and wheelchairs, Rick chuckled. It’s not a hobby. It’s a necessity.
The Betzer family thrives in this way. Each semester, when the Shelley Pioneer publishes Shelley High School’s honor roll, it’s full of Betzers. All five biological children have gone on to start their own families. Some of their adopted children have also moved out, either into group homes or certified family homes, and begun independent lives.
Their adopted daughter, Breann, who lives at home, has worked at Subway for six years.
“It helps me do new things,” Breann said. “I can meet new people, and I’ve learned that I can do this job right. And I make money.”
But the life the Betzers have built would be impossible without Medicaid.
“It allows them to go to school, because Medicaid pays for the supports they have at school, special technicians who get them through the day,” Tina said. “It pays for their therapies. It helps pay for surgeries, and we have a lot of surgeries.”
Medicaid also pays for a job coach, which allows Breann to work.
Rick is the support services manager at the Pocatello/Chubbuck School District’s Head Start program. His employer’s insurance covers many of their routine expenses. But medical expenses in the Betzer household are far from routine.
Two of their children need electric wheelchairs, which cost $18,000 each. Others need leg braces and crutches to get around. Five of the children require total care — assistance with all daily tasks from eating to bathing.
Tina, a former nurse, performs 15 tube-feedings every day, and she cooks for the children who can eat themselves. She gets some of her children to outpatient physical and occupational therapy, while others receive therapy in the home.
“If Medicaid were to go away, we would still have insurance that would cover 60 to 80 percent of most things,” Rick said. “But even at 80 percent, with the number of surgeries we go through, we would be bankrupt. There’s no way that we could have done this on our own.”
“They won’t have a future in front of them,” Hannah Betzer, 19, said of her siblings. “They won’t have wheelchairs or someone to care for them. If they didn’t have Medicaid, they wouldn’t be in this family. They wouldn’t have anyone to care for them or support them.”
That has made the recent election cycle, and debates over major changes and cuts to Medicaid, a fearful time for the Betzers. With so much talk about people who should be working gaming the system, Tina said, the vast majority of Medicaid recipients with no alternatives have been lost in political rhetoric.
Politics and fear
Rick said the biggest political gift for the family has been the gridlock that has prevented major health care legislation from passing since the November election. That gridlock has become the only protection they have, he said.
“We’ve had some interesting discussions around here about the current political climate and the rhetoric that some of them want to run on, rather than looking at the people,” Rick said. “A lot of them look at the party and the dollar sign. They need to get out and meet people.”
Taxpayers wouldn’t save money if Medicaid hadn’t been there for the family, Rick said. The Betzers wouldn’t have been able to welcome so many children with disabilities into their homes, and that would mean many would spend their entire lives in nursing homes covered by taxpayers. Rick’s income and insurance wouldn’t cover any of their expenses, and taxpayers would be on the hook for all of it.
According to AARP, Medicaid can provide in-home and community-based services to three people at the same cost as a single person in a nursing home.
But, more important than that, Rick said, his children would have sadly limited lives — lives like the one Del was leading before they brought him home from Texas.
“All his life was laying in a crib in a back room being tube fed. That’s what you see in a lot of these places,” Rick said. “They’re cared for. They’re maintained. But they’re not loved. They’re not expected to progress.”
Rick said he had a message for Congress as it contemplates Medicaid cuts.
“Vote your conscience,” Rick said. “Vote for your people and not for your party. I would love to see the ‘R’ and the ‘D’ go away.”
Reporter Bryan Clark can be reached at 208-542-6751.