Why did you become a foster parent?
I am an accidental foster parent actually. When my husband and I decided to start a family we ran into issues with fertility which meant that we were unable to have children biologically. We started looking into the process of adoption and decided to take the MAPP class to adopt from Children’s Home Society. My husband and I were originally only going to look into adoption when we decided to take the MAPP class, but once we got into the class and the instructors started talking about the desperate need for homes for children in care, it awakened a whole slew of feelings I had been carrying around underneath the surface about the events that unfolded in my own family. You see, while I am the only child of my mother and father, my mother had three other children in subsequent marriages – each of whom ultimately ended up in foster care themselves. Of my siblings, I alone escaped the chaos and destruction of our family and then the foster system relatively unscathed. Relatively being a subjective term here!
My husband and I committed to taking the MAPP class every Saturday for four weeks to learn what to expect from adoption and what kinds of behaviors and medical issues to expect from kids in state care. There was a lot of homework and forms to fill out, and it was a truly eye opening experience learning about the absolutely horrific things people can do to children and to each other. Much of what they discussed in class I had experienced myself in my own childhood as my mom and stepfather were abusive alcoholics, but the range of various abuse and neglect cases the instructors presented in class literally took my breath away. Aside from learning specific information about the types of trauma and abuse children who come into care suffer, we also had a lot of work to do personally by preparing ourselves to be able to handle the types of behaviors that may arise as a result of that trauma and abuse. This was also an exercise in strengthening our relationship because it forced me and Evan to deal with things about ourselves and our pasts that we would likely never have revisited if not forced to. I mean… my parents were a nightmare… and I would have been happy to leave things in the past, but we had to learn to deal with our own childhood issues to be able to help children that may be placed with us to deal with theirs.
After the second week of class, my husband and I decided that we would not simply go into the adoption track, but chose rather to become foster parents instead with the idea that if a child needed a secure home we would provide that. We also thought that if it was meant to be for a child to stay with us long term, that we had already decided we would be willing to adopt as well – and ultimately of the dozen children we’ve fostered in the last five years, we adopted three of them.
Tell us a moment in your life that led you to take part in foster care.
As my husband and I were going through licensing, we read more and more stories about the abuses children were experiencing. I had endured many of those same things myself and spent the majority of my adult life trying to work through the feelings of fear, worthlessness and anger that I felt as a result of how my parents behaved and treated me and my siblings. When I was an early teen, I finally got free of my mother and step father when my paternal grandmother and aunt stepped in to care for me. But my siblings were not so lucky and had to stay in the situation they were in. They were parentally kidnapped by their father and were missing for several years before ultimately being removed by DCF in another state some years later after my stepfather tried to murder my sister. I was still too young really to step in to try to save my siblings, but it didn’t mean that I didn’t want to. I was in my early twenties when my siblings came into the care of DCF in Massachusetts, and as a result of the abuse I had grown up in as well, I was not a mature twenty something – more like an angry teen. I was not equipped to handle the behaviors my siblings exhibited nor was I equipped to handle the emotional needs they had. I was not able to take them in or help them recover from their ordeal – but neither really was the system of care they were in. Both of them ended up in multiple foster homes and group home settings – and both of them ended up aging out of care with no safety net in place. My youngest sister ended up in the same situation as things between our mother and her father continued to deteriorate and DCF Massachusetts stepped in to remove her as well. After dealing with my own failure to help protect my own siblings, when faced with the idea that I could do something now to help keep this from happening to another child, I knew that we could help - even if we only ended up helping one child, I felt like it could help me heal some of the old wounds I still felt about my own siblings.
What do you think the state of the child welfare system says about Florida, and about the times we live in?
Anytime you deal with a vulnerable population and you fail to protect them, it says something very sad about your society. In Florida, we have not done even an adequate job of protecting our vulnerable populations – particularly our children. We’ve had an increase in the number of children and families on the radar of DCF yet we’ve not funded services to these children adequately. The staff charged with working these cases (whether CPIs, case managers, transporters, supervisors) are not trained very well, they do not have the tools necessary to do their jobs efficiently, and sometimes they cannot get to everything that needs to be done. As a result, what happens is we have this group of children and families on our radar who we know need help. We know they’re in danger. Yet we do not have the mechanisms in place to keep harm from coming to them. And I am not saying that money is the salvo to fix the problems here – it’s not. It’s about supporting the children and the families who care for them appropriately – which means supporting the people working in the system of care – all of the people working in the system of care, not just the child protective investigators (though that is a good start).
We also have a backwards mindset as a state when it comes to child welfare. We continue to see children as an extension of their parents – chattel almost – rather than seeing them as human beings who have rights themselves. So instead of working to do what is best for the children to help them grow up strong and healthy, we place the emphasis on keeping a family together – even if that means keeping a child in a situation that is dangerous or unhealthy. I hear judges and legislators talking about cases of termination of parental rights as the death penalty of child welfare cases, but these same judges and legislators do not live in the homes with the children and see the physical and psychological devastation the effects of a broken system of care have on their daily life and ultimately who they grow up to be. We know the research shows that exposure to violence and neglect have a detrimental effect on children, yet we somehow have come to the conclusion that we do more harm or damage by removing children from these situations – and I think we’re wrong about that in some cases. I’m not saying we should take all children away from all families – but I definitely think that the notion that some situations can be fixed by an inadequate safety plan is tantamount to sticking our heads in the sand to a real and dangerous situation – one that has lifelong, real life consequences!
I also think by not fully funding and fully supporting our system of child welfare that we’re re-victimizing the children we’re trying to protect. I’ve been the parent who had to comfort a child whose nervous system was shot from so much prenatal exposure to drugs and alcohol that they could not adequately regulate basic life processes. Yet when that same set of parents had their sixth child (all five of the others were already in care), the state had to scramble and work really hard to prove to a judge that the situation this child came into was extremely dangerous for that child to go home to – and they almost we not able to remove her because the judge felt like the extreme history of drug and alcohol abuse, chronic homelessness, mental health issues and domestic violence were not a safety issue. I’ve had to pick the pieces up for an eight month old child after they’ve had to spend ten hours on the road to a visitation with a biological parent twice a week – only to not have their diapers changed but once and fed only four ounces in that time by the transporter, visitation supervisor, case manager and biological parent. When we fail to remove children from situations that are extremely volatile and dangerous and then fail to adequately service the ones we do remove, we re-victimize our children over and over again. This is how we have multiple generations of families with the repeated patterns of behavior that cause DCF involvement in the first place. My family is a prime example of this systematic breakdown of the system! I should have been taken from my family many, many times but never was and so I had to suffer the physical and mental abuses doled out by my mom and stepfather. My siblings should have been given stable placements and had case workers who supported them as they grew up, yet they were repeatedly moved from home to home to institutional setting instead. My middle sister is doing well now finally – after a lot of counseling and hard work on her part, my brother is really damaged and will likely not do much better – and my youngest sister had her own child removed by DCF and has only now been able to regain custody of her. I worry that my niece will end up repeating this pattern again someday.
It says to me that our state either does not care about the future of our children or that we’re too immersed in things that are of minor importance comparatively when we don’t do everything we can to protect our children.
How does putting the focus on case planning instead of the CPIs improve Florida's child welfare system?
It seems like the focus of child welfare policy lately has been on the up front battle of investigations and the supporting the child protective investigators. While this is a good start, if we logically think about what happens next, we must figure out that if we already do not have enough resources to care for the families in the system currently, that we’re not going to be able to handle the influx that will necessarily come when we bring more families into care. There needs to be a huge push to fully support the case managers and attorneys who handle the cases once they leave the investigative part of the process too. Otherwise, you bring families into a system that will only end up removing children but not putting mechanisms in place to help heal those families with no mechanisms in place to achieve permanency for those children. There should never be a case where a child has to linger in the system for years with no end in sight – either fix the situation that caused the removal and return the child or if the situation is not fixable or if the fix drags on and on and on because no one thinks progress is important – then move to permanency.
Part of the problem with child welfare as I’ve been witness to personally, is that the turn over for staff is so high and the burn out rate so great, that there’s no longevity for institutional knowledge. By the time a case manager is fully trained and has the ability to make excellent judgment calls on case planning, we’ve thrown such a high case load at them that they’re so overwhelmed and underpaid that they leave for less stress and more money. Understandably! If we focused on supporting the case management/legal aspect of the system as well as what’s been suggested for the investigative portion, then we may be able to have staff trained well enough to actually design case plan activities that would work to help change the unsafe behaviors. If the unsafe behaviors change, then the children get to go home. Having enough and well trained case managers and attorneys would also decrease the caseload of each individual case manager allowing them to be more supportive of the individuals in their care. A case manager with 30 or 40 kids on their case load cannot possibly know all of the details of each case and be alert to the behaviors that are sometimes subtle but indicative of dangerous things to come. They also cannot be as in tuned to the timeframes of the families on their caseload when they have to manage so many different families. Our two youngest children’s cases were complex and had so many chronic problems that the case manager literally had to send referrals out for services once a week. For the family associated with only two of the children on her caseload, I’m quite sure she had to spend at least five or six hours a week dedicated to that case alone – and she had at least thirty children on her load. That is simply too much for one person to manage adequately – though I will say she is one of the shining gold stars of case management in how dedicated she was!
We have to do better as a state – there’s no other way to put this! With our growing population and beautiful places to live, we’re going to always have people want to call Florida home. We need to be sure that we figure out a way to help make that paradise that so many people come here looking for isn’t just a shattered dream!