Our Kids had a strong end to 2014, we look forward to further success in 2015!

Highlights from the last quarter of 2014:

Holiday Toy Drive 2014

BunchyAt Our Kids, holiday season means toy drive season! This year marked Bunchy Gertner’s 18th year organizing the toy drive and her 3rd year partnering with Our Kids.   Through Bunch’s efforts and the support of thousands of donors in our community, every child in care age 0-17 years old receives a special gift for the holidays. Bunchy also makes sure that young adults who are exiting the foster system receive a special gift to prepare them for independent living: the Good Housekeeping gift includes basic necessities for their first apartments. Currently, there are approximately 4500 children in the dependency system in Miami-Dade and Monroe counties. We thank everyone who supports Bunchy’s Toy Drive, with a very special thank you to Bunchy for her tireless efforts!

Miami Walk of Fame Annie Event

AnnieOn December 9th, Our Kids participated in the Miami Walk of Fame Annie event at Bayside Marketplace. Through our partnership with the City of Miami and Mayor Tomas Regalado, Our Kids was invited to participate in the festivities and raise awareness of the need for more quality foster homes in our community. Several Our Kids families attended the star-studded event, where the film and cast received their own star on the Miami Walk of Fame. Thank you to the City of Miami, the Miami Walk of Fame, and Sony Pictures for your support!

National Adoption Day 2014

JudgesOn Friday, November 21, 2014, we hosted our annual National Adoption Day event, sponsored by The Children’s Trust. The event took place at the Miami Children’s Museum where exhibits were turned into mock courtrooms and 43 adoptions were finalized, creating 38 Forever Families. Each family received an annual membership to the Miami Children’s Museum so they can return throughout the year and enjoy all that the museum has to offer. Families also received gift cards to Publix and Toys R’ Us, on behalf of the family and friends of Carla Merhige and Lisa Merhige Knight. Thank you to The Children’s Trust and everyone who helped make this day special for our families, it would not be possible without your hard work and dedication.

Meet Our Kids’ newest Board Members and Board Chair

Bringing direction, guidance and oversight to the Our Kids Board of Trustees are Rudy Fernandez and Andrea Nhuch; both joined Our Kids’ Board of Trustees in the last quarter of 2014. Existing board member, Raimundo (Ray) L. Ruga, was named Our Kids’ board chair for 2014-2015. We are positive that their leadership will ensure the continued success of the organization and welfare of our kids.

Ray Ruga, Chair

Ray L. Ruga is a principal of the CVOX Group, LLC, a strategic communications and public affairs firm that specializes in the financial services sector in Latin America. Ray served as both strategic advisor and spokesman for both the Obama-Biden Presidential Campaign as well as for the Hillary Clinton for President Campaign. Ray received both his Bachelor’s degree in International Business and his MBA in Finance from George Washington University.

Rudy Fernandez

Rudy Fernandez is the Chief of Staff to the President, and Vice President for Government and Community Relations of the University of Miami. He has been a member of the University’s senior leadership team since 2007. Fernandez has a Bachelor of Arts degree in Government from Harvard University and a Master’s degree in Business Administration from the University of Miami.

Andrea Nhuch

Andrea Nhuch is a mixed media artist born in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. Nhuch studied Combined Media, Assemblage and Art in Three Dimensions at the Art Students League in NYC with Bruce Dorfman. Andrea has a Bachelor of Science in Marketing from Ithaca College and a Masters in Cosmetics and Fragrance from the Fashion Institute of Technology.

Thank you Ray for your dedication to Our Kids, welcome Rudy and Andrea!


Give Joy to Our Community’s Foster Children This Holiday Season

The holidays are the most magical time of the year, and there is no better way to give back during this time than by helping ensure every kid has a wonderful time!

For those who wish to help children in foster care but are not able to become foster or adoptive parents, there are other ways in which you can get involved. This year Bunchy Gertner is hosting the toy drive for children in foster care for the 18th year and she aims to ensure every single child in foster care receives at least one present during the holidays.


You can get involved by buying a present(s) for a child in foster care. Come by the Our Kids lobby area (401 NW 2nd Avenue, South Tower, 10th Floor) and choose a star from our Christmas tree, each of which has the name and age of a child in foster care. If you are unable to stop by the office, please call Our Kids at 305-455-6000 and we can help you select a child. The gifts need to be brought to the Our Kids office no later than December 15th and need to be new and wrapped and have the child’s name attached.


You can become one of Santa’s helpers and wrap the gifts for children! Thousands of donated presents need to be wrapped before being sent to foster kids. Wrapping paper, tape and scissors will be provided. Bunchy is stationed at the Village of Gulfstream (aka The North Pole) and is there 7 days a week wrapping the gifts. If you can’t wrap, you can also volunteer and help by lifting/stacking gifts, moving cartons and re-arranging and straightening the area. All volunteers must be at least 16 years of age. Please contact Our Kids if you are interested in volunteering.

Happy Holidays and thank you in advance for helping to brighten the holidays for Our Kids!

National Adoption Month Website Launches

The Children’s Bureau, within the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ Administration for Children and Families, is pleased to announce the launch of the 2014 National Adoption Month website, created in partnership with Child Welfare Information Gateway, it’s information service, and AdoptUSKids.

National Adoption Month (NAM) draws attention to the urgent need for permanent families for the more than 102,000 children and youth waiting for adoption in foster care. This year’s NAM theme, “Promoting and Supporting Sibling Connections,” emphasizes the critical role sibling relationships play in helping to promote permanency for children in care. The NAM website offers a variety of audience-specific resources:

· Professionals can find information to help them promote and support sibling connections, recruit adoptive families, and see examples of how other States are promoting permanency for siblings and youth.

· Adoptive parents can find information on adopting siblings from foster care, learn what permanency means, and view powerful videos from youth and other adoptive families.

· Adopted people can find information on openness in adoption and search and reunion.

· Birth parents can find information on kinship adoption/adoption by relatives, openness in adoption, and search and reunion.

· Youth can learn about how to get involved in their permanency plans, stay connected with adults and other teens through social media, find out about the benefits of being safe online, and more.

Bookmark the NAM website today.

For more information and other adoption resources, contact Child Welfare Information Gateway at 800.394.3366 or info@childwelfare.gov.

When You Have Room at Your Table: A Foster Mom’s Story

From Huffington Post

BY: Rachel Globe

Single and a school teacher, this young woman bravely opens her home to foster care children because she has room at her table.


He was four days old when Julie got her first phone call that there was a child in need of a home. She had just recently completed her certification courses, taking the process step by step, still slightly in shock as to what she was potentially committing to. A single woman on a teacher’s salary — surely there must be better homes to place these children in? Julie had offered to take any child that needed a home. While most families may be on the foster to adopt track, or only want to foster older kids that could be more independent, Julie had the flexibility to open her home to those that may be hard to place.


Zeke had spent the first four days of his life wide awake in a hospital bed. He was born addicted to meth and opiates, so the doctors had kept him in the hospital to monitor his withdrawal from the powerful drugs. Zeke’s mom was a sex worker and his Dad was her pimp. They were living in a hotel downtown, sharing the room with another sex worker who also happened to be pregnant and gave birth to her baby in that same hotel room.


“Zeke’s mom was on too many drugs” Julie shared. “She wanted to love her son, but the drugs were too powerful. The saddest part was getting her info — they interview the parents to get info. She was a foster baby herself. She loved music, wanted to be a singer. Zeke was her only child that they knew of.”


The day that Julie got the phone call about Zeke, she was having her weekly Saturday brunch with her Mom. She had nothing: no crib, no diapers, no clothes, no bottles, not even a car seat to get him home. She said yes, and that day a seat was filled at her table (a seat that was hurriedly purchased at Target along with many other necessary items for a first time Mom without time for a baby shower). Not knowing if she would have Zeke for a day, a week, or for life, she simply said yes, and opened her home.2014-08-20-5_Julie-thumb

“His dad was a gang member.” Julie reflects on the last time she saw his Dad. “He had cigarette burns on his face from growing up. He was waiting for me on the steps to the court one day. I thought he was going to kill me. But he asked if I had family to support Zeke if I died. I said yes, I do. He expressed his desire to see the cycle of violence in his own life end. Told me his story. And that was it. I never saw him again. That was his closure.”


The first thing you notice about Julie’s home is its warmth, as though you’re instantly transported to the beach. Her sweet and no-longer-the-center-of-attention labrador retriever, Hudson, greets you at the door when you arrive. Walls are covered in family photos and reminders of the love that abounds in this home. Julie has Zyler on her hip, unloading groceries from the car while Zeke and Zoe are inside playing. Zoey is dancing while Zeke plays the drums on any object he can find that makes noise when it’s hit.


“The Foster system is very pro family reunification. They provide the birth parents with a lot more resources than they provide the foster parents — which is the way it should be,” Julie reflects on her experience. “But somehow it’s not breaking the cycles. I wish that more efforts were given to prevention — more community help. More awareness of drugs, or prostitution. Part of what they’re doing better is trying to prevent kids from going from one home to another. They’re looking for more permanent homes for kids, which is helping.”


Zoey started living with Julie when she was a year and a half. Born at 4 lbs, the doctors had told her birth mom to bring her back in a couple of weeks for a checkup. She was never brought back, and no one ever followed up with her. It wasn’t until a year and a half later that someone took Zoey to a neighborhood clinic because she wouldn’t stop crying.

At 18 months she weighed 16 lbs and wasn’t even on the growth charts. They thought that Zoey was on drugs because she was so unresponsive, and her little body was covered in scabies. Julie received a phone call, asking if she could take Zoey. Recognizing that she was a single Mom with a newborn already in her home, she asked them to call her back in 24 hours if they couldn’t find a placement. A day later, Julie got the second phone call that no one would take Zoey because her scabies were so contagious. Another seat was filled at Julie’s table that day. Zoey was diagnosed with ‘failure to thrive’ by the doctors, having never been fed solid food and unable to open her eyes in the sunlight because of a lack of outside exposure.


“As a teacher I’d seen foster care kids come through school with no resources. I don’t think I’m the solution, but I did want to do something. I think the foster community needs more awareness of the great need for foster families, resources… I would talk anyone I know into doing it. If they’re calling me — a single Mom on a teacher’s salary — to take a fourth and fifth kid? That shows you the lack of people and resources.”


Zyler was born addicted to meth so the doctors took him right away. His Mom was in and out of jail for a long time — still is. She sells drugs and prostitutes herself to be able to afford them. Julie doesn’t know as much about his background, but acknowledges the deep connection between the drug trade and sex trafficking. She’s still fostering Zyler (after having adopted Zeke and Zoey) but believes that she’ll adopt him as the court learns more of his background.


“I’ve learned that I’m stronger and braver than I thought. I had to face the fear of being single. Not being able to do it on my own, being left with these kids with no resources or help or anything. How will I deal with their issues? My fear was that I wouldn’t be able to handle them effectively like they deserve to be handled and treated. But I learned that there’s not a limit to how many kids I can love. It’s doable. You just make it work.”


Fear seems to be the main hurdle for families thinking about fostering. There isn’t a lot of education about the needs of foster care families, or the resources available to them. It’s a hard system to navigate. There are respite resources available to foster care families, for example, but this service is rarely public knowledge while families are considering opening their homes to foster children. While there are social workers assigned to the children, there are no social workers assigned to the foster families themselves. There’s no overarching system that ties all of the resources together — it’s a system run by amazing people — but no one to tie it all together or provide a resource guide.

A ‘typical’ foster child, as Julie outlined, never truly knows where home is until they’re either adopted or placed in a foster family willing to foster them until they’re able to be reunited with their family. They push people away, knowing they are probably going to get rejected anyways. It’s a never ending cycle when there aren’t enough families to foster. Cultural barriers commonly provide another source of fear for families looking to foster.

Typically, families are much less afraid to take younger children than older ones. It’s difficult to predict the needs that a child will have or what life for a foster child is like — it’s so based on their situation — but Julie expresses the desire for it to become more normalized. Many foster care youth end up trafficked when they bounce between homes and don’t have a guardian invested in them and mentoring them. The need for a permanent person willing to provide a home for these youth is a great need.


“I desire to keep their culture intact. Both black culture and foster culture. Both are part of who they are. Integrating the culture of fostering has already deeply rooted. We go to foster events, we’ll foster dogs, we’ll volunteer in the foster system as they grow up… fostering will be a part of our lives.”

Julie expressed her desire to be completely open with her children. Zoey is just starting to notice the skin color difference, and will start school soon. Without a Dad in the home and being exposed to children who are in traditional families, she knows these questions will begin to pop up as other kids ask questions and begin talking. But when they do ask, she plans to be completely open.


“My hope for these three is that they grow up to realize that it wasn’t a bad thing they were adopted. I hope they’ll want to help the system. And realize that they weren’t given up. They were born for a purpose and a meaning and their parents just couldn’t do it. They are just as wanted and loved, even though they came from a different place — their birth mom — they came to me — their heart mom. A single mom without a lot of money. I hope I can give them the resources to do what God put them on this planet to do.”


Rachel’s Note:

I have known Julie for almost a decade and have for a long time wanted to tell her story. It’s difficult to write about the foster care system from a narrative perspective while holding an awareness to the tension that exists between the foster care system and keeping children with their families. I am always an advocate for rehabilitating the entire family, and think that blood is strong and so important in creating bonds and connections and safety. I thank Zeke, Zoey and Zyler’s families for their bravery and sacrifice. Julie’s adoptions are all open, and she hopes that the Z’s will be able to have a relationship with their birth parents and siblings.


This article originally appeared in Love Matters of Huffington Post. To view the original article, click here.

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Why You Can’t Cook Your Way to a More Enjoyable Family Dinner

From Huffington Post

BY: Charity Curley Mathews

Sometimes people say to me, “you must be such a good mom.” They think I’m rocking this parenting thing, probably running circles around them, because I make such a big deal out of cooking for our kids. Guess those people have never seen my laundry room.

Cooking dinner, like every single part of parenting, is just a choice. It takes time, money, equipment and a bit of know-how. Like working out or saving money, it’s not easy and you have to make it a priority or you probably just won’t do it. But there’s also the diplomatic part, which can either make or break the whole thing. A recent study about the stress of family dinners conducted by sociologist Sarah Bowen, spurred a particularly vexing Slate article, titled no less than “Let’s Stop Idealizing the Home-Cooked Family Dinner”. “The main reason that people see cooking mostly as a burden is because it is a burden,” complains Slate’s Amanda Marcotte. “It’s expensive and time-consuming and often done for a bunch of ingrates who would rather just be eating fast food anyway.” Sound familiar?

After Slate covered it, many others agreed, picked up where she left off or rebutted. Then The New York Times came out with their own version. But each piece danced around the same issue: “Everyone dealt with what Ms. Bowen called the “burden of pleasing others,” says NY Times writer Anna North. “Middle-class mothers felt that offering new foods was crucial for developing their kids’ palates — even if the process sometimes leads to food fights. But the process was time-consuming and stressful. Ms. Bowen and her co-authors write that “we rarely observed a meal in which at least one family member didn’t complain about the food they were served.”” Bingo!

It’s so emotionally charged, this idea of making dinner. “Good moms” cook dinner, right? But when you don’t feel appreciated in your own home, by your own people, it’s so discouraging. Have you ever felt so fed up with the whining that you just couldn’t stand to make one more chicken dinner? I sure have. Sometimes I wonder, worry really, if using so much energy to cook takes away from other parts of our family life, like you know, making it through bath time without screaming at anyone. My husband isn’t a big eater and he’s not even home for weeknight dinners most of the time anyway. There have been times when it’s just me and three fussy kids pushing their plates away or yelling, “BUT I DON’T LIKE PEAS!” the second I set their food in front of them. Don’t forget the baby, who may or may not be crying her way through dinner prep on any given night.

When I heard myself saying things like, “Maybe I just won’t cook anymore if no one is going to appreciate it!” I knew I needed to revamp the way we do dinner. I enlisted my husband’s help to make these kids understand how much work this is, and why I do it for them. To the oldest three, I’ll ask, “What would you say if I crinkled my face when you showed me your drawing earlier? If I said, ‘Oh, gross! I hate red flowers on pictures. You KNOW I don’t like that. Make me something else!'” They laugh, but the point is taken. Complaining about the food is simply not allowed at our table anymore. Consequences are going to one’s room until they can come back and join us again, with a kinder attitude. It’s a pain to enforce because the result usually involves a kid yelling even more but in the end no one has ever, not once, missed dinner altogether.

The new family rule is the first thing anyone says at dinner if they want to say something is, “Thank you!” We also introduced a thumbs-up, thumbs-middle, thumbs-down policy and now leave all criticisms at that. But under no circumstances is it OK for anyone to say something is bad, gross, yucky… Not from kids, not from parents. Not OK. Figure out a better way to express what you want for dinner NEXT TIME and see if that’s doable.

Not cooking because of time or expense is one thing. Not cooking because everyone is rude about it is another — and something you really can change. Even if you’re totally worn out. Especially if you’re totally worn out. This can be turned around.

Take heart, moms, if you are cooking dinner even a couple nights a week, you are doing the right thing. And dads, please help. Even if that means you always clear the plates, or always unload the dishwasher, just do something that moms can count on every day, especially moms who are preparing and serving dinner without you on most nights. Got a dad who cooks? Please reverse this advice.

Making dinner and eating it together is important and it does produce great results. The reasons why I make cooking real food a priority are many. From nutrition to simple Home Ec principles (how to shop, cook and budget) to something at least as important: eating this meal together gives us the chance to check in with each other, to talk, laugh, sing, and pray together. You can’t do that if everyone’s too busy complaining about dinner. Like biting or wetting the bed, talking smack at the table is behavior that needs attention. Teaching our kids to eat nicely (an ongoing lesson if there ever was one) has been at least as hard as doing the actual cooking, but at least as important.

Otherwise, I agree with the folks at Slate. Why do it?

Charity Curley Mathews is the founder of Foodlets.com: Mini Foodies in the Making…Maybe, where this post originally appeared.

To view the original article on Huffington Post, click here.

Foster Child Writes Inspiring Essay, Topic: “Who Am I”

One of our foster children recently wrote an inspiring short essay for school. The following are his words.

My name is Erik, in Swedish Erik means forever strong and it shows because I’ve been put into foster care and throughout most of the time I’ve managed to maintain a positive and friendly attitude towards everything even though I am still going through a rough time, I still manage to make great decisions in life and focus on my education.

I see myself as a mature, intelligent, caring, strong, honest, responsible young man yet I’m shy. I’m a very caring person. I feel others pain and am willing to help anyone though a hard time. Growing up without a father, I had to mature quickly and become the man of the house which made me the dependable and strong man I am today.

One of my passions is music, my favorite genre of music is rock and I love playing my guitar. So much that I no longer watch TV but instead practice my guitar whenever I have the chance. I look up to many great guitarists like Slash and Tom Morello. I just find it very entertaining to play my favorite songs on guitar, it’s my favorite hobby. Another passion of mine is animals; all animals are different and appealing to me. My favorite animal is a dog because of their loyalty and unconditional love towards humans. At one point of my life I wanted to become a dog trainer. I would watch a lot of animal shows learning about many different animals around the world. I also enjoy learning about history and reliving the journey that real people have gone through also learning from the many great mistakes many have made.

In the next five years I would like to myself in college learning many things and concentrating on my education as it is essential for a great career and future. I would also like to see myself helping out my community and family in any way possible, and of course I would also like to see myself doing very well in guitar.

The many steps I can take to ensure that a have the future I want is to concentrate on my education and get great grades, the kind of grades that impresses others and makes your mother and father proud to be your parents, and to continue volunteering and practice my guitar every day.

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DCF leader says child welfare at a ‘pivotal time’

From the Daily Commercial


ORLANDO – The leader of Florida’s embattled Department of Children and Families opened the annual Child Protection Summit on Wednesday with a pledge not only to save lives but to “protect the light” in children’s eyes.

“A lot of times, we say we save lives as if the only thing we do is prevent child fatalities,” department interim Secretary Mike Carroll said during the event in Orlando. “To me, preventing child fatalities is a given. It’s an absolute must. …But that’s not what I mean. When I say we save children, it’s about protecting the light inside of them and helping it to burn brightly.”

Carroll also acknowledged the intense scrutiny he and his colleagues received after a series of child deaths, calling this “a pivotal time in the history of child welfare in this state.”

Carroll was the third head of the department in three years to welcome child-welfare professionals, foster and adoptive parents, advocates, judges and law enforcement officers to their annual gathering.

The first, former Secretary David Wilkins, resigned in July 2013 following a wave of media reports about children known to the department who had died from abuse or neglect.

The second, former interim Secretary Esther Jacobo, led the department through the 2014 legislative session, when lawmakers passed a sweeping child-welfare reform measure and approved the funding to hire hundreds of new child-protective investigators. She stepped down in May.

Now Carroll, a plain-spoken man with a Boston accent who rose through the department’s ranks over 21 years, is charged with putting the new law and new money to work.

“I think the governor and Legislature sent a pretty strong message that we in Florida can do better, we must do better, for the children and families we serve,” he said. “And I think they’ve also put their money down on the table and said, ‘We’re willing to support that.’ ”

Gov. Rick Scott and the Legislature approved $47 million in new funding for child protection in this year’s state budget, although critics pointed out that much of it simply went to replace earlier cuts.

Major items included roughly $13.1 million for 191 new child-protective investigators at the department and $8.1 million for the six county sheriffs’ offices that provide such investigative services.

Thanks to the new money, Carroll said, the average caseload for child protective investigators will drop to 10 early next year, when the new hires are trained.

“You can’t do this work with high caseloads,” he said.

Carroll also pointed to the statewide rollout of a safety methodology to help child-welfare workers make better judgments about particular children or families. He praised the use of data to better identify the children most at risk. He said the implementation of a “Rapid Safety Feedback” process “allows us to interject some of our best, some of our most seasoned and experienced folks, into cases where critical decisions are being made around child safety.”

Carroll also said the department’s “perceived lack of transparency” would be corrected by a new website to track child deaths and make them public.

He vowed to recruit “an army of the best foster parents in the world. …They do more to love and heal our kids than any service we can provide.”

And he said the state must step up its focus on substance-abuse and mental-health issues in order to better protect children.

“If we can’t effectively treat folks who have chronic substance-abuse issues, we can’t protect kids who live in those homes,” he said.

To read the original article, visit dailycommercial.com.

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Notice for Foster Parents that Received a Bill from the Department of Health

Dear Our Kids foster parents,

If you have received a “Notification of Fees Due,” or invoice from the Florida Department of Health in Dade County, in the amount $100, please read the following carefully:

• Do not pay the amount due. We’ve contacted the Health Department and have been informed that the letter was sent out incorrectly.
• Please contact Our Kids (305-455-6000) immediately if you have been told that this bill is due for a prior home inspection by the Department of Health.
• We encourage anyone who received the letter to call the number listed on the invoice and write down the name of the person you get in contact with.

We sincerely apologize for any inconvenience this may have caused you. We appreciate your understanding of the situation. We are here to assist you, please feel free to contact Our Kids and ask to speak to a licensing representative if you have any questions.

Stefanie Wickers, MSW
Director of Licensing

Our Kids Board of Trustees Welcomes Jackie Gonzalez as new President & CEO

Jackie Gonzalez

Jackie Gonzalez

From the Board of Trustees:

We are thrilled to announce Jackie Gonzalez, Esq, will be joining the organization as the new President and Chief Executive Officer of Our Kids of Miami-Dade/Monroe effective September 2, 2014.

Gonzalez is a highly experienced child welfare professional, and previously spent the last 13 years at the Children’s Home Society of Miami, most recently serving as its Executive Director.

“Jackie’s experience and extensive knowledge of Florida’s child welfare system makes her the perfect person to lead Our Kids and continue to build upon the last decade of work,” said Sandy Bohrer, Our Kids Chairman of the Board of Trustees. “We look forward to her leadership as we continue to innovate our approach to improving the child welfare system.”

In the last 27 years, Gonzalez has championed child welfare advocacy in Florida. She successfully worked in a myriad of areas in the industry including providing leadership in case management, establishing prevention/intervention programs, forming strategic alliances with industry partners, Overseeing budgets and interfacing with leaders at the local and state level.

“In a short amount of time, Our Kids has set the standard for child welfare in Florida and nationwide and I am honored to have been selected to take on the leadership of the organization,” said Gonzalez. “I look forward to building on its success and to continue acting as a champion for children in our community.”

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DCF Works With Agency To Relieve Miami Foster-Care Overflow

From CBS Miami

TALLAHASSEE (CBSMiami/NSF) – The Florida Department of Children and Families is working with the agency that oversees child welfare in Miami to resolve issues that have included an overflow of kids in the area’s foster-care system.

DCF Interim Secretary Mike Carroll on Friday said the department is collaborating with Our Kids, the lead community-based care agency for Miami-Dade and Monroe counties, after a surge in the number of children coming into state care.

“I think that system of care has experienced some significant challenges over the past year,” Carroll said. “And some are directly attributable to the number of kids coming into the system.”

In a June 9 letter to Our Kids’ interim CEO Joyce Taylor, Carroll said he “continue[d] to receive reports regarding lack of appropriate placement options for children in out-of-home care, resulting in children being housed in hotels, offices and emergency group home placements.”

The agency has seen a 44 percent increase in children coming into foster care and now serves about 33 percent more children than it did in June 2013, according to Our Kids spokeswoman Kadie Black.

“This isn’t just happening in Miami,” Black wrote in an email. “This has been happening in several circuits throughout Florida during the last year, although we are seeing one of the sharpest increases in Miami.”

Florida’s troubled child-welfare system has been the focus of intense scrutiny by the Legislature and the media during the past year, and a sweeping new law revamping the system went into effect July 1.

“Whenever there is significant change to the system, I think it has the effect of stressing the system,” Carroll said. “And not just Our Kids — I’m talking the whole system of care.”

Carroll followed up his letter to Our Kids by sending a “peer consultation team” to Miami, including the chief executive officers of two community-based care agencies, Lee Kaywork of Family Support Services of North Florida Inc., in the Jacksonville area, and Lorita Shirley of Eckerd Community Alternatives in Pasco and Pinellas counties.

Shirley said the team’s charge was addressing the overflow of children into the system, but “we are looking at all aspects of how that system is operating.”

There are currently no children in state care housed in Miami-Dade hotels, Carroll said Friday.

Carole Shauffer of the San Francisco-based Youth Law Center said the interim secretary showed foresight in making the move.
“It’s completely unacceptable to have kids staying in unlicensed facilities,” she said. “Had DCF not taken some action to end this, they would have been subject to liability themselves.”

Shauffer noted that the Youth Law Center sued the department and Big Bend Community Based Care in 2006 for having children sleep in a DCF conference room. After Bob Butterworth became DCF secretary the next year, the department settled the lawsuit. Big Bend, which provides services in Tallahassee and surrounding areas, went on to collaborate with the Youth Law Center on the Quality Parenting Initiative, designed to increase the number and caliber of Florida foster placements.

But placements continue to be a problem in Miami and elsewhere, said Robin Rosenberg, deputy director of the advocacy group Florida’s Children First. She called it “incredible” that an area the size of Miami-Dade County would have so few places to serve the most troubled or traumatized kids.

“It is outrageous that children who need a therapeutic placement are parked in hotels,” Rosenberg said. “And that is not Our Kids’ responsibility.”

She said all the responsible state and local agencies — DCF, the Agency for Health Care Administration, managed-care providers and the managing entities that oversee substance abuse and mental health services — should put their heads together and figure out how to develop enough therapeutic placements to keep kids in their communities.

“They’re getting sent to Jacksonville or Orlando,” Rosenberg said. “How do you get family therapy if your family is three hours away?”

That said, members of the peer consultation team say the issues are being resolved. And former state Sen. Ron Silver, who is now a member of the Our Kids board, said the agency’s relations with DCF have improved “immensely.”

“We are thankful to DCF and our partnering (community based care organizations) for taking the time to meet with us so we can identify best practices from around the state to ensure we are able to provide the absolute best possible service for children and their families,” Black wrote.

Additionally, Our Kids, which has been without a permanent chief executive officer since April, last week hired Jackie Gonzalez for the post. Gonzalez spent the past 13 years at the Children’s Home Society of Miami, most recently as executive director, according to Black.

This report is by Margie Menzel with The News Service of Florida.

To view the original source of the article, visit miami.cbslocal.com

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