From her first campaign to her latest, Republican presidential contender Michele Bachmann has used her time as a foster parent to help create an image of a family-focused Christian driven by compassion and social conviction.
Now, with the national spotlight shining bright, the Minnesota congresswoman is claiming her family is off limits.
In this instance, Bachmann is trying to have it both ways and may end up undercutting an authentic streak that's helped her rise in polling to challenge the front-runner for the Republican nomination, Mitt Romney.
"I am running for the presidency of the United States," Bachmann said recently when asked to comment on reports of controversial treatments offered at her husband's counseling clinic and about the family's federally subsidized home loan. "My husband is not running for the presidency. Neither are my children. Neither is our business. Neither is our foster children."
Yet, when it suits her, Bachmann mentions that she and her husband have been "the proud foster parents of 23 great children." And she portrays her entry into foster parenting as an act of faith, saying that she and husband Marcus, a trained therapist, were following the lead of fellow parishioners at her church.
"Our hearts were broken for at-risk kids," she said last month in an unpublicized appearance at Jonathan House, a communal center in Washington for young Christian men.
In a brief interview last spring, Bachmann told The Associated Press that her house had as many as nine children at once, her own five plus four more. She gave a similar account at Jonathan House, according to video someone in attendance posted on the Internet.
"We brought our first child in and we got a phone call. `Would we take another?' And we did. Got a phone call, `Would you take another?' And we did. Got another phone call. `Would you take another?' And we did," Bachmann said.
"Then we said, `Hold on just a minute,'" she added. "We had another biological baby and by that point we had a census of nine kids in the house. And at that point we couldn't all sit around a table, so we had to blow out a wall and make our kitchen bigger."
Bachmann talks about foster parenting in mostly abstract terms and never mentions the children by name. The government considers their identities protected. One located by the AP wouldn't comment, and none has come forward to tell his or her story for attribution. Former neighbors confess having only vague recollections, if any at all, of the foster children.
The little that is known about this part of her life was pieced together from interviews and spotty public records.
The Bachmanns were first licensed as child foster care providers in 1992, when they were living in the scenic town of Stillwater, east of St. Paul, on the St. Croix River.
George Hendrickson, who managed Bachmann cases for several years through the Professional Association of Treatment Homes placement agency, remembers visiting a well-kept home big enough so that the foster children and the Bachmann kids didn't have to share bedrooms. He said he found Bachmann to be relaxed, organized and engaging.
Hendrickson said the Bachmanns initially hoped to care for young unwed mothers, but instead found themselves shepherding a steady stream of teenage girls battling eating problems. Most were connected to an eating disorder treatment program.
Marcus Bachmann's background in mental health treatment helped the couple earn a license. While therapy for the foster girls was done mainly through a university program, the Bachmanns helped them make steps toward health. Hendrickson remembers one girl so averse to eating that she had trouble being in a kitchen; the Bachmanns, he said, got her to feel comfortable setting the table, pulling food out of a cupboard and serving dinner.
In his four years as their caseworker, Hendrickson said, there were seldom more than two foster children in the Bachmann home at once; they were licensed for up to three. Her own accounts of a bulging household would put her outside those bounds.
Hendrickson and one former neighbor recall some girls in the white, two-story home for months at a time. They say other children came in emergency situations _ staying "a scant amount of time, sometimes just overnight," as neighbor Susan Mosiman put it.
"When we first moved in I didn't realize they were foster children. I just assumed they were friends of the children," Mosiman said, referring to the couple's five biological children. "They were just there doing homework, playing and acting like a normal family."
The goal was to shelter and support the girls while they completed outpatient treatment, and gradually prepare them to return home or to launch into life independently.
Newspaper voter guides from Bachmann's school board bid in 1999 and state Senate run a year later list her as a foster mother to 20 children. Late in Bachmann's 2000 campaign _ about six months after her foster license expired _ she wrote a commentary piece for the Stillwater Gazette that also used the figure.
By her bid for Congress, six years later, the count had risen to 23 in newspaper's voter guide and other materials.
Bachmann and her campaign have declined to clear up inconsistences between the number of children she and Marcus cared for at any given time and the number overall, as well how they fit within the license standards. Spokesman Doug Sachtleben would only say that Bachmann has been "clear and consistent" on the topic.
State law allows placement agencies to destroy closed case files after seven years, and those pertaining to the Bachmanns are now gone. The state Department of Human Services didn't maintain any Bachmann-specific files, said spokeswoman Beth Voigt. The Bachmanns haven't said whether they still possess any records.
Hendrickson, now chief executive at the placement agency, doesn't doubt the details she's shared publicly.
"In my working experience with her, if she said they served 23 kids, I believe there were 23 kids," he said.