BY WENDY M. DODD   

24,216 children are currently being cared for in an “out-of-home” foster care setting within the state of Florida.  24,288 of those   children entered the system since January 1, 2017. Currently, Florida has one of the most over populated systems in the United States.

Children are most often placed with family relatives when they are removed from their homes. Nevertheless, this is not always possible for many different reasons, this is where foster care comes in.

Foster families are a vital part of every community, they care for, love and nurture children in need. In addition, they exist as a mentor to the families they are assisting.

The Department of Children and Families works with 18 community-based care agencies to assist in providing prevention, intervention, foster care and adoption services throughout Florida. These agencies are responsible for enlisting and certifying families across Florida to serve as foster care homes. Homes accepting teens, sibling groups and children with special needs are desperately needed.

The state of Florida also offers extended foster care and some financial assistance for youth who age out of foster care. Many former foster youth are highly motivated and successful, even starting their own campaign to honor all they have overcome, #itCANbedone.  Communities throughout Florida such as churches, businesses and nonprofit organizations have shown a gracious support for those in the foster system as well.

With that, there is still much to be done within the system to ensure children receive the necessary care, counseling and love needed to ensure a life of success as they grow. Resident Magazine spoke with a current foster family, who due to foster care regulations must remain anonymous, who have given us a wholehearted look inside the life of a Florida foster family. Sharing their triumphs and heartbreaks along with their frustrations with a system very much in need of an overhaul.

From A Florida Foster Mom:

We have never been able to have biological children but knew we wanted to be parents. We also knew there was an over abundance of children here in Florida in need.

We had initially tried adopting a few older children from the system.We found the younger children generally are not awaiting adoption as a family member or foster parent will begin the process as soon as they are available for adoption. Much to our dismay, the system here is failing, both on the part of the children desperately in need of a family as well as  the loving foster (or adopting) family eagerly awaiting them.

There are different stages of child cases in the Florida foster system. Meaning, some children are permanently placed in the system until they are adopted or until  they age out due to parental rights allow time for the parent(s) to complete the specific case plan. The goal is ALWAYS reunification when possible.  Reunification means the parent(s) have satisfied what was set forth in their case plan and are now able to regain custody of their child(ren).

Unfortunately, too many of the children who are being reunified, are also coming back into the system just a short time later, as the parents more often than not revert back to their old ways once they have their children back in the home.

We were matched and everything started extremely slow.  With our first foster arrangement, the kids wanted to move in from the very start. Something we would have preferred as well. Currently the system here in Florida has  children that are new to the system being shuffled from home to home, sometimes three or four in a week.

Initially we would have one to two hour visits. Then advance to all day, and next to overnight and eventually to whole weekends. With this slow start, comes different home life influences and foster parents cannot commit the time necessary to learning behaviors and define what the children specifically need to help with their specific traumas.

Unfortunately for us all, the adoption fell through with the older children due to one of them having severe behavioral issues that we were not equipped to handle.  We had reached out for help on this specific child several times, just to be met with dead-end after dead-end. We also discovered those in charge had dropped the ball several times in getting this particular child the required psychological evaluations they desperately needed and should have received. It was disclosed to us after the fact, that a judge had previously ordered this several months prior to being matched with a family.

Trying to adopt out of the foster care system without having actually fostered first was a huge eye opener and disappointment in learning how the foster system worked.  After the disruption, we had no interest in even working with the system again.  We took almost a whole year off, sad and confused.

However a year later, it was back on my heart.  I knew I couldn’t just give up helping over that 1 bad experience. (In no way did we ever blame the child for his severe behavioral issues, we knew they stemmed from a mixture of a system that needs a complete overhaul, his original home life, and his current life in a group home specifically for foster children; a home that had too many kids of all ages, lack of proper supervision, constant changing of staff, and no real sense of a family, or a mom and dad.)

Instead of going straight for adoption, we decided to become foster parents.  We wanted to provide love and sense of family to 1 child at a time as long as they were in our care.  Literally, minutes after our foster license was issued, we were called to take our first placement.  We were scared and nervous having no idea what to expect.

That night, a young toddler showed up on our doorstep.  Yes, they actually show up with whatever belongings they may have, in GARBAGE BAGS. And there are times they literally show up with NOTHING.  You never know what to expect those first few nights, even weeks.  This particular placement adapted very well and started bonding to us right away.

At this point the biological parents’ rights are still intact. They are given case plans, a plan of action to regain custody of their child(ren).  Currently, our foster children’s parents have not fulfilled any of the implemented case plan.  Sometimes they visit, sometimes they don’t. Unfortunately, even when they do, one hour per week doesn’t make you a parent or even capable of giving them adequate care. Especially when they haven’t committed to consistently making it to that one hour per week.

In our case, there is no attachment between our foster child and the biological parents.  In the meantime, this child has taken over our hearts and is beyond attached to us and to their little life as they know it.

We have now been a foster family for over a year.  The placement we received over a year ago is still with us and we couldn’t be happier.  Not only do we still have this placement, we also have their new sibling. When a family member is unable to qualify or unwilling to take in the child, the next automatic option is whoever has the sibling.

A new case plan was put into place for the new child, mirroring that of the case plan already in place for the first child.  We as a family feel we’ve come to a point where this (original placement) child will experience great trauma if they are removed from our home. Yet here we are over a year after the fact, still entertaining the idea of possible reunification on an unworked case plan.

Since birth, we are the only parents either placement knows and has bonded with.  Don’t get me wrong, I am for reunification IF the parent is doing EVERYTHING in their power to change their behaviors and to right the wrong that ended with their child(ren) being taken away. Which is not the situation we have here, our foster children still have a completely unworked case plan that extends back two years. They have biological parents who failed to properly care for their first child yet continued to have more babies despite. ENOUGH IS ENOUGH. These children deserve better than a life of uncertainty and revolving care.

The Florida foster care system should be obligated to provide children with permanency and stability.  The system we have is falling short on many levels, we need to bring about changes in order to become more child-oriented instead of parent-oriented. Children should not be falling through the cracks at any level. They did not ask to be thrown into the foster care system or into a stranger’s home. They did not ask for biological parents who abuse, neglect, or abandon them. Too many children are removed from a home like this only to be put into an even more volatile situation or displaced month after month, year after year,even more of a reason the Florida system needs to be revamped.

Children should ALWAYS be a number one priority in any situation, not the parent.  Unfortunately, blood is not always better either, many times the family issues that originally initiated the removal have been passed down through the generations. If reunification were always the best option,  there would not be so many repeat children in the foster system.

From our first hand experience, let me tell you some amazing things we have learned as foster parents, the amazingness that comes from parenting these children and being involved in their lives.

We attended our foster agency’s Christmas party recently, having no idea the party was being held at a cottage that also housed other foster care children, generally 6 to 18 children awaiting placement or adoption. Currently, the cottage is home to 9 loving siblings the agency is fiercely trying to keep together. Finding a foster home for home for two siblings is a challenge, a home willing to accept 9 is nearly inconceivable. Nevertheless, the State of Florida is doing what it can to keep these siblings together as long as possible.

As a foster parent, we get to help them learn their shapes and colors. We have the joy of showing them love and building up their self-worth. We are the ones with the privilege of teaching them how to be a productive member of society and to show them how amazing a family can be. We get their little hugs and “I love you’s.” We are the ones that get to hold their tiny hands, to hear them sing and watch them dance with a huge, happy smile on their face. We get to read to them every night and are the ones to watch their excitement when they accomplish something that was frustrating them. We get to show them that someone is in their corner, rooting for them, being their cheerleader, and letting them know they can grow up to be anything they want to be. We get to teach them how to ride a bike and see their excitement for Christmas decorations and for Santa. Being involved in their lives is one of the absolute greatest gifts in our lives. To watch them grow and accomplish goals has literally change our life. We do this for the children. You become a foster parent wanting to change a child’s life for the better, but your life is changed and enriched as well.

Sincerely,

A Florida Foster Mom

Sadly, the reality in our world proves to us this number will only continue to rise. There will always be more children in need than safe beds available as there are kids coming into care by leaps and bounds on a daily basis. For the foster care system to function at the necessary level to ensure safety and adequate care for all of the children enrolled, more good hearted, dedicated foster parents are desperately needed, not only here in Pasco County but throughout the United States and across the world. Providing care for children coming from a home that was abusive or neglectful takes commitment. Foster parents ultimately act as a role model for the biological parents as they work to reunify with their children is a significant responsibility and, ultimately, a matter of public trust.

Becoming a foster parent is not for every family, even so, if you or someone you know is looking to help children in the foster system in other ways there are lots of wonderful ways to contribute. Offering services such as hair cuts or salon services, donating necessities such as toiletries and hygene products, or “non-necessity” items such as games, accessories or any other appropriate incidentals. Donations would mean the world to these families as they struggle to create a new blended normal.

To qualify as a potential foster parent you must:

Attend an orientation.

Complete 20 to 30 hours of foster parent training.

Have a child abuse and criminal background check.

Participate in a home inspection.

Participate in a home study to review your readiness for fostering.

For more on becoming a foster parent please visit:

www.myflfamilies.com/service-programs/foster-care/how-do-I.

www.myflfamilies.com/service-programs/foster-care/rewards

Information regarding the government of the foster care system can be found here:

www.centerforchildwelfarre.fmhi.usf.edu/