A DAY IN THE LIFE — Child advocate
Editor’s note: This is part of a weekly series spotlighting various professionals in our community, highlighting the impact of their work. Have an idea for the series? Email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Marshalltown native Dee Strickler Witte is living out her own version of “Cheaper By the Dozen.” Wife, stay-at-home-mom, child advocate and daycare (and night care) provider, she and her husband Justin Witte are the parents of 12 — 10 living in the home, and two fully grown, in what she terms a “biracial, multicultural family.” Three are biological while the other nine “grew in her heart, not her womb,” she said.
The Wittes have operated an in-home daycare for about 20 years. Witte worked for years as a nurse, while her husband has a background in special education.
“I always thought nursing was my calling, but being a mom is truly my calling,” she said.
Witte awakens each morning at 4:15 a.m., having not gotten to sleep until after midnight.
“I work on four hours of sleep and a pot of coffee,” she said.
The first youngster arrives to her daycare by 5:45 a.m. The final child in her charge may not go home until well after midnight.
“It’s a 24/7 job,” she said. “It used to be more 9 to 5, but for the last two years, we’ve had kids here for second and third shift (care).”
Little tykes vie for attention, eager to show their “Nina” (her nickname) their latest artwork, new tablet game or ask her a question for the hundredth time.
Witte’s calm, friendly demeanor is as strong as steel.
“She has more energy than any ninja warrior,” friend Jeanne Vellinga said.
Sometimes, striking that balance between work and having a personal life can be challenging when the two overlap.
“It’s why we decreased the daycare size. Our kids just needed more one-on-one attention. Our kids are always sharing us and sometimes that’s hard,” Witte said.
The July 2018 tornado nearly destroyed her home, which was filled with several children at the time of the destruction.
“We went from an eight bedroom house down to two. For eight months, I slept in the living room with my children until the house was rebuilt,” she said. “Kids that had so much trauma in their life to begin with, then went through a tornado, it’s like re-hashing trauma. We just sang ‘Jesus Loves Me’ as loud as we could to mask the sound of the tornado.”
Witte said that while she and her husband have been foster parents in the past, they technically now are an adopt-only home.
“State regulations for foster care in Iowa is five children per household, so we have surpassed that,” she said. “Some of the children we’ve adopted have siblings out there and the parents aren’t doing so hot, so they’ll eventually come to us. We try to maintain family connections as much as possible as long as it’s healthy for them.”
The children Witte has fostered and adopted have all endured trauma. She said some of the children in her daycare would have nowhere else to go because of behavioral issues.
“We have a lot of children that have labels behind them. We call it the ‘alphabet soup.’ On a daily basis, we deal with behavior disorders — oppositional defiant disorder, reactive attachment disorder, post traumatic stress disorder, attention deficit disorder, etc.,” she said. “Our kids aren’t bad kids. They’ve just been placed in a lot of bad situations that kind of molded them into who they are.”
Witte keeps her life semi-organized with the help of her smartphone’s calendar app.
“The only things that are scheduled are meals and naps,” she said. “Trying to have a complete schedule will just backfire on you in daycare. You just always have to have your game face on. You never know how your day is going to go. They plan the day for you — their demeanors.”
Dinner is an especially hectic time of day because of all the mouths Witte must feed.
“I would have my 10 kids home, plus five for daycare and Justin and me to cook for,” she said. “I’m constantly feeding people. It can be tricky. There are certain foods the kids will eat really well, like tater tot casserole, and some kids only eat select foods. Sometimes you have to hide the veggies in the casserole.”
Buying in bulk and cooking with large trays and pans has become the norm.
Self-care is essential. Her husband escapes to the Y early in the morning to exercise, while Witte enjoys yoga. In their free time, they’re interested in the supernatural, operating Haunting Paranormal Intervention.
“We have a little boy who’s been in 11 placements. Put yourself in that child’s shoes. Everybody that’s ever been in this child’s life has done nothing but give up on him. I’m not going to be that person. I have a passion for children. I always knew I was going to have a big family — I never dreamed I would have this many children — but they’re all a blessing. Everything is divine timing. We’re not given more than we can handle. We all need each other. We complete each other,” she said.
Contact Sara Jordan-Heintz at