Behind every disturbing headline, every heartbreaking news story of a family in crisis, are the children whose lives are turned upside down. What happens to these children is never their fault, but they often pay the highest price.
Substance misuse. Violence at home. Sexual abuse. Incarceration. Neglect. Abandonment. The reasons vary, but when a biological parent cannot safely care for their child(ren), the state intervenes.
Getting a child out of danger is the first step. The next is getting that child to a safe place for as long as necessary.
Unfortunately, this story is becoming more and more common.
“Over the last 30 months, the child welfare system in Florida has experienced an unprecedented increase in the number of children entering foster care. Northwest Central Florida—particularly Marion, Hernando, Citrus, Sumter and Lake Counties—is one of the hardest hit areas in the state. Since November 2014, the number of children in foster care in these five counties has ballooned 70 percent, from less than 1,000 to nearly 1,700,” observes John Cooper, chief executive officer of Kids Central, a central Florida agency that develops and manages a comprehensive, community-based system of care for abused, neglected and abandoned children and their families.
As of mid-September 2017, almost 250 children from Marion County and 100 children from Citrus County were placed in licensed care, while 322 Marion children and 162 Citrus children were placed in approved care (living relative or non-relative caregivers instead of foster care). In 2016:
- 158 children in Citrus County were abused or neglected due to substance misuse
- 145 children in Citrus County experienced abuse or neglect due to domestic violence
- 328 children in Marion County were abused or neglected related to substance misuse
- 304 children in Marion County experienced abuse or neglect related to domestic violence
Once a call has been made to the abuse hotline, the Department of Children and Families may remove the child from the home, placing them in foster care if a relative is not available to provide care. The primary goal is always to eventually return the child to his or her parents, providing this can be done safely and in the child’s best interests.
“Parents are given the opportunity to make life changes that will enable them to care for their children in a safe and loving environment. During the time it takes for them to make these adjustments, the children stay in foster care,” says Nicole Pulcini-Mason, director of community affairs for Kids Central. “Foster care is intended to be a temporary shelter for children until they can be reunited with their family.”
The length of time a child is in foster care depends on many factors, including the severity of abuse suffered, medical and therapeutic needs, how engaged the parents are in the process, judicial involvement, etc.
“When safely possible, our goal is to reunify families within 12 months,” says Pulcini-Mason, adding that in the last two years, almost 41 percent of children exit foster care and are in a permanent home within one year of removal.
Children who stay in foster care longer than this do so for a host of reasons. For example, the courts may feel parent(s) are making progress on their case plan and allow them additional time to complete case plan tasks required by the court, or the parent(s) may file an appeal regarding the termination of their parental rights. If the child is being placed with an out-of-state relative, the process can take over a year because of the necessary supervision of placement.
In a situation when parental rights are terminated and a child is up for adoption, the child will remain in foster care until an appropriate match is found. It often takes more time to find a match for a sibling group or a child with complex needs. And for the occasional child who does not want to be adopted, remaining in foster care is the only solution as long as that child is a minor. Once those young adults are ready to exit the foster care system, Kids Central provides help via their “Independent Living” program, assisting these youth as they make the transition from foster care to adulthood.
Fill ing The Gap
Locally, Kids Central trains and licenses foster families to care for children, providing stable, loving, temporary homes during their most vulnerable moments. The safety and well-being of the children is always the highest priority.
The greatest need is for foster homes open to caring for teens and sibling groups. Pulcini-Mason notes that these children are traditionally the most difficult to place. For example, Kids Central averaged 405 sets of siblings this year.
As of mid-September 2017, there were 92 foster homes (215 beds) in Marion County and just 34 homes (78 beds) in Citrus County. Just as the number of children coming into the system fluctuates, so do the number of foster homes. There are many reasons foster parents may decide they can no longer foster, including adopting, retirement, health issues and moving.
When a foster family steps into the gap, they can make a crucial difference.
Stan and Dana Redrick felt God wanted their family to serve others but knew traveling out of the country to serve on a mission field wasn’t possible with their present life.
“Once we learned about the need for fostering in Ocala, we felt like that’s where God was leading us to serve,” say Dana, adding that their daughter was 6 and their son was 9 when they began fostering.
Since becoming licensed foster parents in 2012, they’ve opened their home—and hearts—to 13 children. The 5-year-old boy they are currently fostering has been with them for 2-1/2 years.
“We talked to our children to get their feedback before fostering,” says Dana. “This was a family journey for us, and our kids have made this process so incredible. They’re both so invested, and they do things with the kids we foster that we wouldn’t have thought of.”
The Redricks made the decision to foster one child at a time, and this has worked well. They had to put their biological children first and know what their family can handle.
“Every child has their own wealth of needs and comes with their own set of rewards and challenges,” says Dana. “Sometimes we have to work with the biological parents, and we like to do this if we feel it’s safe. The point of fostering is to reunify the children with their families if it’s a good situation. That doesn’t always happen, but no matter what situation they come from, kids want their families. They often don’t understand that the circumstances they lived in weren’t healthy.”
Sharing joy with a child and providing a safe, healthy environment are the big rewards of fostering, observes Dana, adding that the children they foster also give so much.
“They have opened our eyes to life outside our ‘bubble’ when we see the appreciation they feel for the smallest things, like just having food in the pantry and a bed to sleep in.”
When a foster child leaves, the Redricks feel that emptiness but also rejoice that the child has gone back to his or her family. To commemorate time spent with the fostered child, the Redricks go out to dinner as a family of four and celebrate that they were able to know and love that child.
“We’ve had a lot of tears in our house, and it’s hard to see them go, but we have to remember that means it’s worth it,” says Dana. “You have to get beyond thinking about how it affects you and realize your temporary hurt helps save a child who was living a life of hurt. The kids are our heroes for all they have endured.”
Dana acknowledges that not everyone is able or meant to be a foster parent but points out that there are ways to be part of the foster process without taking a child into your home. For example, you might offer to babysit for friends who are fostering so they can have a “date night.”
For those who can open their home, Dana encourages them to take that step.
“The need is mind boggling; there are a lot of homeless kids in our county. The fact that our phone rings constantly with calls about kids who need placement shows how big the need is for foster families.”
The Option Of Adoption
“Children become available for adoption when the court terminates the parents’ rights. This occurs when children cannot safely be reunified with their parents,” explains Pulcini-Mason. “After parental rights are terminated, other family members or adults who know the children commonly adopt the child(ren); however, sometimes this is not the case.”
The children most in need of adoptive families are those without family available to adopt them. These children tend to be part of a sibling unit, have medical issues, have therapeutic needs, are over the age of 12 and/or have been in foster care longer than two years.
“When a family adopts, they become the legal, permanent parents of the child(ren),” Pulcini-Mason notes. “At this point in time, 206 children served by Kids Central are assigned to adoption units. Many of them have family members or other caregivers interested in proceeding with adoption and are in the process.”
If relatives are unable to adopt the child(ren) for any reason, the case manager may turn to the foster parents and discuss the possibility of adoption.
That’s exactly what happened with Todd and Lisa Panzer of Ocala, who adopted one of their foster children and are currently in the process of adopting a second. With two biological children, ages 16 and 20, and another 1-year-old boy they are currently fostering, this family of five has been fostering since 2011.
During the past six years, the Panzers have fostered 24 children, including several sibling sets of three.
A social worker by trade, Lisa has always had a heart for children and a strong desire to help them.
“I had great parents, and I grew up knowing that I had a great life. I’ve always wanted to make a difference for children who weren’t as blessed as I was growing up,” she says.
“I always wanted to foster, and it was an agreement my husband and I made prior to even getting married,” adds Lisa. “We waited until our biological children were older before we started fostering because we did not want to expose them to any issues that bringing other kids into the house might raise.”
Lisa says that although they didn’t go into fostering with the idea of adopting, when their second foster child arrived in their home, the courts were already in the process of terminating parental rights, and no other family was available to take him.
“When the opportunity presents itself and you get a baby, you fall in love very quickly,” she smiles.
The Panzers have found that the most challenging and rewarding aspects of fostering are closely linked: the attachments they form with the children and the pain when they leave. That said, they are grateful for being part of the process of helping the children through such a difficult time and are happy about the positive outcomes when children return to their biological families.
Lisa notes that in some instances the biological family is involved during the foster process, but other times there is no contact.
“We’ve had foster kids who talk to their parents on the phone every night or see them weekly,” she says, “and others who haven’t seen them at all.”
Seeing the enormous need for more foster families, the Panzers hope others will open their hearts and homes.
“It’s certainly not something you can go into blindly. It’s really a calling; you need to have the time, energy and room, but there are so many children who really need a stable home,” says Lisa. “I truly believe that no matter how long a child is in your life, you’re sowing a seed and at some time that seed, will grow. You’re able to touch their life, whether it’s for minutes, days, weeks or years. You have to know that what you’re doing does a make difference.”
Want To Foster Or Adopt?
The process to become a foster or adoptive parent includes attending mandatory training classes (both online and in-person), home visits, inspections and paperwork. Background checks are conducted; applicants cannot have any active criminal cases or be on probation. References are also required. The average time to become licensed is two to three months, but it can take up to six months.
Candidates must meet the following requirements:
- Be a Florida resident age 21 or older
- U.S. citizen or permanent resident
- Married or single
- Be financially stable
- Be able to care for children
- Can have other children or not
- Pass extensive criminal background checks
- Have adequate room and beds in their home for children
For more information, contact Kids Central at (352) 873-6332 or email [email protected]