Category Archives: Foster Care

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!

Advertisements

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.

DONATE

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.

VOLUNTEER

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.

2014-08-20-1_Julie-thumb

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.

2014-08-20-2_Julie-thumb

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.

2014-08-20-3_Julie-thumb

“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.”

2014-08-20-4_Julie-thumb

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.”

2014-08-20-6_Julie-thumb

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.

2014-08-20-7_Julie-thumb

“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.”

2014-08-20-8_Julie-thumb

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.

2014-08-20-9_Julie-thumb

“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.”

2014-08-20-10_Julie-thumb

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.

2014-08-20-11_Julie-thumb

“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.”

2014-08-20-12_Julie-thumb

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.

2014-08-20-13_Julie-thumb

“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.

2014-08-20-14_Julie-thumb

“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.”

2014-08-20-15_Julie-thumb-1

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.

2014-08-20-Rachel_Julie-thumb

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

Follow us on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and Pinterest.

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.

Follow us on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and Pinterest.

DCF leader says child welfare at a ‘pivotal time’

From the Daily Commercial

By MARGIE MENZEL THE NEWS SERVICE OF FLORIDA

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.

Follow us on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and Pinterest.

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.

Sincerely,
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.”

Follow us on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and Pinterest.

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

Follow us on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and Pinterest.

Foster Care’s Looming Crisis

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

$2.8 billion.

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.

This article originated at naples.floridaweekly.com. Click here to view the original version.

Follow us on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and Pinterest.