From Naples Florida Weekly
Florida welfare officials and child advocates expect a surge of children to flood strained state system
BY ATHENA PONUSHIS
MORE CHILDREN ARE ENTERING THE CHILD welfare system. More foster parents are needed to love these children as their own, then let them go.
The Florida Department of Children and Families has shied away from removing children from their homes, acting under the philosophy of family preservation. Protecting families has led to the death of 477 children in six years, investigations show.
Those deaths have provoked change — recent legislation directs DCF to shift its priority to acting in the best interest of the child.
As fearful as child protective investigators were to remove children from their homes, now they’re scared to let them stay.
Child welfare workers sense a surge of children coming, but the increase of children that will enter the system remains unknown.
Foster child advocate Christina Spudeas puts it bluntly: “Are we going to see a kneejerk reaction? Absolutely. Are we going to bring a lot more kids into care than we need to? I absolutely think that’s going to happen. It will, because of heightened fear.”
Leaders of Community Based Care agencies do not see a rise in removals as negative, as Larry Rein of ChildNet says, “If it’s done intelligently to make children safe it is the right and good thing to do, but the key is that we need to have resources to serve those children and those families.”
Florida has 4,561 foster homes. This past year the state added 1,463 new homes, but 1,125 closed, meaning the number of new foster parents has essentially been wiped out. Some foster parents decide to adopt and stop fostering. Others stop due to burnout.
Foster parents feel beat up by the system. They say they are told to advocate for the children, but when they do, they are ignored. They fear if they speak up too much, their foster children will be taken away from them. Sometimes they question if reunifications with biological parents are made for the good of the children or to look good on paper. Many foster parents are throwing their hands up, surrendering to the system, shutting their doors.
But they do not want to discourage potential foster parents, they want to recruit them. They want to break patterns and shift generations.
“Being a foster parent has taught me about unconditional love. I don’t think I ever understood it the right way. It’s the act of loving somebody,” Scott Maulsby says. “See, a lot of times, people think love is an emotion. It’s not.”
It’s an act. And that act broke his heart.
Mr. Maulsby lives in North Palm Beach. He and his wife, Carrie, foster babies, straight from the neonatal intensive care unit, many withdrawing from drugs.
Cameron was not yet 2 months old when he came into their care. He was given nebulizer treatments, inhaling medicine as mist, to treat his asthma. He was taking anti-HIV medications to prevent his mother’s past from being passed on to him. Mom was a prostitute. Dad had nine children with three different women.
“Foster parents in general, I think it’s safe to say, we look at it and we say, I can give this child a better home, so you, judge, should see that, that I’m a better parent than this guy. He’s been in jail, he’s a registered sex offender, he’s this, he’s that, he killed a man, he shot this person, he raped this woman, and I’m a better parent than that person, so give this child to me,” Mr. Maulsby says, summing up his past train of thought, but having fostered seven children in three years, he’s learned, “That’s not fair.”
Cameron lived with the Maulsbys for 14 months. He was reunified with his father. “I’m not going to lie to you. I wanted to adopt Cameron,” Mr. Maulsby says.
He demonized dad in the beginning. When reunification was imminent, it dawned on him, he could lift him up, support the man who would raise the boy he loves.
“Now I’m his biggest fan, so it rehabilitated me, too,” Mr. Maulsby says. “I was wrong when I was rooting against dad, when I was happy that bad things were happening to dad. I was wrong to think that. Now that I’m on the other end of it, the last thing I want is for something bad to happen to dad.”
The Maulsbys feel it’s their calling to foster, an extension of their faith, to be a father to the fatherless. They since have been named Cameron’s godparents. They see what they’ve done as making a “Kingdom impact.”
“If I can impact a father who has nine children, look at the impact that can have over the course of the next three generations,” Mr. Maulsby says. “You think about what you do every day, how much of it is really going to matter in 50 years?”
“What a blessing that would be to see in 100 years, Cameron had some kids and maybe even they had some kids and things were different because of 14 months in our home.”
There are more than 30,000 children in the state dependency system. Roughly 10,000 children are in foster placements — some in foster homes, some in group homes or shelters, some are placed out of county, some are separated from their siblings.
When he thinks of the incomprehensible swell to come, Mr. Maulsby says, “This is like Katrina hit. There’s a tsunami that’s hit.” He cannot understand why it’s not the top story on the news every night: Not enough homes for children. “What else is more important?” he asks. “I can’t figure it out. I really can’t.”
ChildNet, the Community-Based Care lead agency for Broward and Palm Beach counties, reports that as of July there are more than 4,500 children in foster care; 282 new homes opened this past year and 162 closed.
The Children’s Network of Southwest Florida, the lead agency for Lee, Charlotte, Collier, Glades and Hendry counties, reports a total of 570 children in foster care; 120 new homes opened and 72 homes closed.
Wendy Vernon brings up the prospect of foster parenting in every conversation. She does not miss an opportunity to recruit. When she tells people she is a foster parent, she says they immediately respond, “Oh, I could never do that. I could never give the children up.”
This stings her. “Do they think that I don’t have a heart? Is that what they think?” she says. “It’s because you make it about yourself rather than the children, and if you’re thinking about how you would feel, yeah, you would never do it, because it’s heartbreaking.”
Mrs. Vernon wants to dispel the public stereotype that foster parents are in it for the money. DCF reports foster parents are paid $429 a month for children up to age 5; paid $440 a month for children ages 6 to 12; paid $515 a month for children age 13 and older. (Compensation rates are higher for foster parents licensed to care for children with therapeutic needs).
“If you do it properly, that money doesn’t cover it,” Mrs. Vernon says. “What we get we spend on the children. When they come to you, most of them come with nothing, so that’s a very big expense.”
Conversely, she wants to dispel the assumption that you have to have money to foster. “We don’t have a palace. We have an extra room,” she says.
Mrs. Vernon and her husband Paul live in Cape Coral. They came to Florida from England. In their dining room, above a teapot, hangs a plaque that reads: “Ask for me and my house, we will serve the Lord.” The Vernons have fostered 26 children in five years.
Sitting in her dining room, Mrs. Vernon opens up, the day after she flew to Maine to transition her foster child into a pre-adoptive home. They boy had lived with her for 20 months. When he came to her, he never cried, because at 2 months old, he had learned nobody came when he cried. The Maine family adopted his sibling, so they chose to adopt the boy. The Vernons Skyped with them for months and placed their picture at the boy’s bedside.
“It was strange sitting on the plane, having sat on two planes with him, holding him, then coming away,” Mrs. Vernon loses her words, “empty arms.”
Regaining her composure, falling back on her mantra, she says, “It’s not about me … As much as I could make it about me, I could be sitting here crying my heart out because I’ve just given a little boy away, it’s not about me.”
Mrs. Vernon had four calls for foster placements the two days she was in Maine.
The Vernons liken foster care to emergent care, triage, recovery time, co-parenting with a family in crisis. They render the rewards of being foster parents as seeing a child change, a family heal, becoming whole again.
The Vernons caution that people should not foster with an agenda to adopt. They are so aligned with the goal of reunification, that when it does not come to pass, they feel like they’ve failed.
They believe the key to sustaining foster parents, combatting burnout, is support, the support of other foster parents and the support of the system.
Barbara Boslow, child advocacy coordinator for the Guardian ad Litem Program in Palm Beach County, says she’s not seeing support, she’s seeing threats.
“Constantly. It is unbelievable the way (the system) treats these foster parents. They are not allowed to advocate, they are not allowed to make noise and they’re the ones who know the children the best.”
Mr. Boslow finds this upsetting, so much time spent trying to recruit foster parents, they go through the classes, the whole process, they get their license and then they stop fostering after their first kid.
“They do it and then they’re out,” Ms. Boslow says. “And I do believe, strongly, that the system does not give the foster parents the respect that they deserve. They are not treated as well as they should be … I see so much of a clashing with these angels, these foster parents really are angels, they’re stepping in.”
Ms. Boslow finds herself staring down the same misconception over and over again: “People think there are a lot of foster parents out there, and what I ask them is, ‘How many foster parents do you know?’ They always say none. I go, ‘Well, where do you think they are then?’”
She thinks foster parents would make the best advertising, but so many foster parents have had so many bad experiences, they’re not saying, “Oh, you should do it,” they’re saying, “Don’t do it. It’s the worst.”
“That’s where the attrition comes from,” Ms. Boslow says.
DCF reports the state has an attrition rate of around 1,100 foster homes a year, and to keep pace with the swell of children, the system needs to perpetually attract 1,300 to 1,500 new foster homes annually.
“I think the system needs to have a little sensitivity training on how to deal with foster parents,” Ms. Boslow says. “Where are you going to put these kids?”
Andrea Cook, a foster mom turned adoptive mom living in Orlando, says, “I could never foster again, because the system beat me up.”
Mrs. Cook and her husband Nathan were asked to foster 12-week-old Michael for three weeks, at which point he would go live with his grandmother. Four months later, they were caring for his 2½-year-old brother Elijah, too.
Mrs. Cook was taught to stand up for the children in her foster licensing classes, if something came up that didn’t sit well with her, it was worth a discussion, so in a meeting with the attorney, case manager, Guardian ad Litem and others, Mrs. Cook shared that mom had been showing up to visitation with this new guy. A minor in criminal justice, Mrs. Cook looked into it, and she remembers telling the respective parties, “He just got out of prison for serving a 23-year sentence for murder and you guys are talking about giving mom unsupervised visits with the children and we all know that mom didn’t have a vehicle prior to this gentleman being in her life and now you want to give her unsupervised visits? Common sense tells us he’s going to be the one picking up the kids. We don’t know anything about him. How is this possible? How is this allowed?”
“Everybody in the meeting turned the other way. They ignored it,” Mrs. Cook says.
Mom was supposed to take random drug tests, but Mrs. Cook says mom told her people from the drug rehabilitation program would call her up and say, “Hey, on Thursday we’ve got to give you a random, so meet me at the BP gas station.”
Mom was supposed to take an eight hour parenting course, but it took her five months and 14 cancellations to finish.
“They want you to speak, but at the same time, they threaten you as a foster parent that they will remove the children,” Mrs. Cook says of the system. She spoke up. Reunification did not occur. The Cooks adopted the boys. The last time Mrs. Cook talked to mom, she had two more children, she was living in a hotel room with no food, no money, no gas and no diapers.
“You convince people to get involved in fostering and the system tears you up and you can’t do it again,” Mrs. Cook says. “If you have a child that comes into your home and you are their champion and you are their advocate and you are loving them like you are supposed to, like you love your own child, and then the system works the way it does and puts these children back in harm … you can only take this for so long … If we’re asking foster parents to take care of these kids and really do it the way it should be done, you can’t last.”
Christina Spudeas, executive director of the nonprofit watchdog Florida’s Children First, worries about the proliferation of group home facilities as the state needs to find more placements for foster children. She says group homes receive far more money than foster parents, one child in group care costs the state approximately $31,000 a year, versus $6,000 a year for a child in a foster home. The state paid foster parents $45 million last year.
“We see most of our adolescents being placed in congregate families, and yet they are going to create their own families someday,” Ms. Spudeas says. “How do they learn to be good parents when they have never been part of a family?”
Called “Mama” to Florida Youth SHINE, an advocacy group made up of former foster youths, Ms. Spudeas hears how it was the wish of many foster children to stay with their families. “I understand that keeping the family intact, if you can keep the children safe, is a wonderful goal, but the fact of the matter is, it started to trump what was in the best interest of the children,” she says.
Contemplating the legislative shift in priorities from family preservation to child safety, Ms. Spudeas anticipates a flood of children in need of foster care.
She muses over the implementation of new decision-making methods for child protective investigators to better assess safety and risk, a methodology some suggest will lead to less children in foster care. “Should there be less that come into care? I don’t know. I can’t say that. I don’t know. Apparently, 477 should have been that weren’t,” she says, referring to the Miami Herald investigation of 477 child deaths that happened under DCF’s watch.
Again, Larry Rein, executive director of ChildNet, does not see the rise of children being removed from their homes as negative, as long as resources are in place, like a well of foster families.
Child welfare workers say you cannot just look at the numbers, ‘We have this many foster children to place, we have this many foster homes,’ because it doesn’t translate. You have to find the right fit.
“Wouldn’t that be a wonderful thing if they could do that, but they don’t. It’s like, ‘Where’s the bed?’ That’s it. It’s not the person, the family, the fit,” Ms. Spudeas says. Having the inventory to match foster parent and child, “That’s a luxury we wish we could have,” she says.
Looking at DCF July numbers: There are 4,561 licensed foster homes in Florida; 1,776 foster homes are caring for more than one child; 1,427 foster homes do not have any children placed in them at all.
Mr. Rein cautions those in the system, don’t jump for the empty bed, “don’t make a placement just to make a placement,” make a good fit. If the child does not fit with the family dynamic, the family may feel frazzled, “We can’t do this,” close their door, the child feels abandoned again, and the family may not foster another.
As much as the last state legislative session was geared toward child safety, Mr. Rein would like to see the next legislative session geared toward family services.
“People need to understand that the child abuse system in the state of Florida is predominantly a system about adult substance abuse and adult mental illness and adult domestic violence,” he says. “That’s the root of the problem and we need, most definitely, additional resources targeting those problems and until we do that, we’re doing a disservice to the children in the system.”
So while he’s grateful for funding on the front end, $56.9 million put toward child welfare, Mr. Rein would like to see some money on the back end, because as he says, families in the dependency system aren’t coming out of nowhere, many are coming back from relapse. The total DCF budget is
In the course of her life from foster child to foster parent, Ashley Rhodes-Courter says she has seen the child welfare pendulum swing from nonsensical removals to nonsensical reunifications.
She believes her adoption saved her life, but she feels when she was removed from her mother, if her mother had been given the support of the system, she could have gotten it together, rather than turning to those who gave her food and shelter, drug dealers and pimps, who did not progress her life in a positive way.
Without support, she feels the emphasis on biological reunifications may not be best and may be dangerous. “I think we’re leaning too much into biology and that’s why all these premature reunifications are happening and that’s why children are being killed,” Ms. Rhodes- Courter says.
She wrote a memoir of the nine years she spent passing through 14 different foster homes, titled, “Three Little Words,” and in the circle of things, she has since seen one of her foster daughters fall asleep reading it. When she went to tuck her in, she remembers thinking, “Holy cow, here’s my foster daughter reading my story about when I was a foster child and I hoped in that moment it brought her some peace.” And some company.
Her second book, “Three More Words,” on her experiences as a foster parent, will be out in May. Ms. Rhodes- Courter and her husband, Erick Smith, have fostered more than 20 children, going on four years.
“Each time we got a phone call, it just killed me,” she says. “Who can say no to a homeless child?”
Ms. Rhodes-Courter was shocked to learn the highest population of children needing care in Pinellas County, where she lives, were little ones, children under the age of 5, because of the prevalence of prescription drug abuse in Florida.
She has fostered a little girl whose mother used to put her cigarettes out on the little girl’s arms. She has fostered malnourished children with rotted-out teeth.
Ms. Rhodes-Courter says one of her foster children, who tested positive for STDs, was reunified with the abusers. She says another foster child was sent home after she presented the court with time-stamped Facebook photographs of continuing drug use in the home.
“Hitting those kinds of walls, time and time again … we were treated so poorly, so frequently, that I can definitely see how foster parents burn out,” Ms. Rhodes-Courter says.
As a foster child, and even volunteering as a Guardian ad Litem, Ms. Rhodes- Courter remembers thinking, “Foster parents just do it for the money. There are fewer good foster parents than there are horrible foster parents who have ulterior motives.” As a foster parent, she says, “I learned that’s not true, that there are countless amazing foster parents and we really strive to be one of those amazing foster homes, but I’m also learning, those amazing foster homes, probably the reason that I didn’t have any of them, is that they burn out so quickly.”
Her biggest fear in speaking and writing about her life as a foster parent is sounding negative, but she says, “We can only share the story that we experienced.”
Ms. Rhodes-Courter and her husband continue to foster because there are children who need a safe bed, a fully belly, who need to be nurtured, who need to be read to, who need to see what healthy looks like.
Her thoughts drift back to a 3-year-old and a 5-year-old, siblings they fostered, who came into their home wanting to play Grand Theft Auto and watch violent movies. “That’s not how we roll in our house,” Ms. Rhodes-Courter says.
Her husband started reading them bedtime stories. “In such a short period, I mean, they had to have these bedtime stories, so it became this routine and they became kids again,” she says. “I would stand outside the door and cry because it was so beautiful to see these young boys who were so desensitized, so exposed to things well beyond their years, but to see them light up with a bedtime story … Oh, that’s why you do it.”
So foster children can become children again.