Guest Blog from Denise Beeman-Sasiain, Foster and Adoptive Parent
Last month, Our Kids hosted a Town Hall Meeting for foster parents. Representatives from Wesley House case management, Children’s Legal Services, the Department of Children and Families, the Guardian Ad Litem office, and Monroe Circuit Court were all in attendance. (Since Xavier, our 2 1/2 year old, is from the Keys, my husband and I were invited to attend).
My family and I are grateful to all those at Wesley House, the Guardian Ad Litem office, DCF, Children’s Legal Services, and the Circuit Court for the work they have done over the past years on Xavier’s behalf.
When Xavier was first placed with us, over 2 1/2 years ago, I took my first trip down to the Key West Court House. It is vividly etched in my memory: As I exited my car near the courthouse, I felt like I jumped out of my skin when I heard an aggressive animal warning. As my adrenaline kicked into overdrive, a glorious rooster with feathers in spectacular hues of amber, purple and black, jumped down from its low perch, and let out another distinctive warning call to protect its nearby contingency of hens and chicks. Then, to make the moment even more surreal, a four-foot iguana slowly crawled out from under the bush, and started crossing the yard in my direction. At this point I thought to myself, “Where in the world am I?” I mumbled under my breath, “I am Alice in Wonderland,” and I quickly made my way through this fantasyland called the Keys and entered the Courthouse doors.
This first encounter with the Conch Republic was a fun and uncanny experience, which I find indicative of the real life differences between the mainland and the Keys.
Each year, hundreds of thousands of tourists make their way down to the Florida Keys. In the last decade, the Keys ever-growing tourism industry and the resulting higher cost of living have contributed to an 8.2 percent decline in inhabitants, with only 73,000 locals. Services that we take for granted here in Miami, like medical specialties, Dyadic therapy and other developmental therapies (like Occupational, Physical and Speech therapy) are not readily available throughout Monroe County.
In the Keys, there are several hundred children under Wesley House’s care, but there are only 14 foster families. Many of the children are now with relatives, yet there is still a significant shortage of beds. Those children who cannot be provided for locally often come to foster homes in Miami, and those children with significant medical needs are also placed in Miami-Dade County, as there are no medical foster homes in the Keys.
Fran Allegra, CEO at Our Kids, had the foresight to bring together the Keys system of care professionals to meet specifically with the foster families to identify their concerns. By opening the communication lines through a team building activity, everyone present had the opportunity to introduce themselves and express what they hoped the meeting would accomplish. As everyone shared, it became abundantly clear that those in attendance had the same overall goal: to make a difference in the lives of the children and families that we serve.
In the afternoon, the meeting broke up into small groups to focus on those ideals and circumstances which would signify an enhanced system of care, and many solutions and hopes were identified: more quality foster parents, better communication, streamlining the paperwork process for both fostering and adopting, increased funding and children finding permanency within one year.
But it was this last concern – the length of time that it generally takes for children to find permanency in the Keys – that was the prevailing, most relevant issue expressed by almost all the foster parents present.
Bart Armstrong, the Regional Director of Children’s Legal Services for Miami Dade and Monroe Counties, and Christy Lopez, Managing Attorney, gave an overview on transitioning children out of care and also on Chapter 39. The Chapter 39 discussion gave foster parents some legal understanding as to under what conditions parental rights can be terminated.
It is crucial for foster parents, who are the front line warriors that daily deal with the emotional components of fostering children, to recognize and understand the laws and regulations that guide the legal and case management professionals who tirelessly work in the system of care.
The open forum in which foster parents were able to express their concerns fostered a much-needed platform for discussion. Moreover, the voiced willingness and commitment of both Our Kids and Children’s Legal Services to look into the foster parents’ concerns was both reassuring and encouraging.
This first of four scheduled town hall meetings in the Keys was a concrete step in identifying and promoting change for all parties in their system of care. By sharing information, points of view and experiences, all those involved grow emotionally and intellectually. The end result: An enhanced system of care that will more effectively meet the needs of the children that we serve.
Kudos to Our Kids for promoting open communications lines as a key building block in achieving further transformation and change!