By Selena Garrison
The day our first foster child arrived is one that I will never forget. After months of classes, preparation and home studies, we had gotten the call. There was a 9-day-old little boy who needed a home — maybe just for a little while or maybe forever. His momma was not able to take care of him and his dad was unknown. He was being released from the hospital that afternoon. Would we take him?
The “yes” that followed started a whirlwind of diapers and onesies, sleepless nights and court dates, Medicaid fights and first smiles. Our biological kids, ages 5 and 18 months, had to abruptly adjust to being a big brother (again) and a big sister/middle child. Our friends brought diapers, clothes and food and told us how wonderful we were for taking in a little guy who needed our help.
The questions came all the time, from friends and strangers alike. “Are you going to adopt him?” “How are you going to survive when they take him back?” “Do your kids have the same dad?” (Yes, seriously.) All of the well-intentioned (and less so) inquiries grew to be exhausting, but I was (usually) happy to answer them and shed some light on the need for foster parents in our area.
According to Michelle Giordano, recruitment specialist at Partnership for Strong Families, there are 310 children in out-of-home care (foster care, relative placement or non-relative care) in Alachua County alone. There are only 64 foster homes in Alachua County, and 53 more beds are immediately needed to put each child in a home. That is just one county! Across the entire state, there are close to 20,000 children in out-of-home care. The need is huge, and the available beds are few. The fact of the matter is that we need great foster families to help take care of these kids!
Kristy Sutton, co-founder of Gainesville-based Foster Florida and momma to four biological kids and momma-for-now to almost two dozen foster kids over the years, said that most children come into care as a result of neglect or abuse related to substance issues with their parents. “So many times this is a generational cycle,” said Sutton. “The parents of these precious kids likely experienced the same thing as children. With no support system, no healthy coping mechanisms, and no model for appropriate parenting, they are continuing the cycle with their own kids.”
This is why foster care exists. Foster parents provide a safe place for kids who have been removed from their parents to grow and thrive, while having their physical and emotional needs met. In the meantime, their parents often undertake various services and opportunities to work toward getting their kids back. Foster parents provide support to both the children and their parents and work to help toward a successful reunification when possible and appropriate.
When asked about the hardest part of being a foster parent, Sutton echoed the feelings of the people I speak with every day. “People just don’t understand,” she said. “There is a general lack of understanding and knowledge from the general public surrounding what foster care is and what foster parents do. We aren’t out here trying to adopt everyone else’s kids. Our job is to provide a support system for a family in need and take care of their kids while they can’t. That does sometimes lead to adoption, but it isn’t the primary goal.”
Sutton also pointed out that there is an underlying connotation with many people that foster kids are “bad” kids. “I wish people outside of foster care understood that these kids are just normal children, like your kids and my kids,” she said. “They just want to be kids, but along the way, they have collected some intense baggage through no fault of their own. They need a stable, loving place to help unpack that baggage and start the healing process as their parents work through their issues or as other permanent options are sought after.”
The road of providing care for children coming out of trauma is definitely not one that everyone can (or should) walk, but there are so many ways to help, no matter your situation!
The first way you can help is by inviting children into your home and becoming a licensed foster parent. This generally requires background screening, an application process, several weeks of training and a few home studies. Of course, before becoming a foster parent, you should do your research and decide whether this route is best for you.
If being a “full-time” foster parent doesn’t seem right for you, maybe a “part-time” option would work. You might consider becoming a licensed foster parent and providing short-term respite care when other foster parents are in need of a break, have to travel for work or have an out-of-town emergency. Another option is to become a Guardian Ad Litem (GAL) volunteer. GAL volunteers are the court-appointed “voice” for the child once he or she is in foster care, and they seek to investigate what choices will be in the child’s best interest.
You can also support foster families through many different avenues, including provision of supplies, child care, prayer support, meals and other tangible needs. Connect with your local Foster Parent Association or church to see how you can help. You can also reach out to Foster Florida, an organization in Gainesville co-founded by Kristy Sutton and Lacy Basford that seeks to surround foster families with people who are willing and able to provide for these needs.
Where do you fit in foster care?
If you are in the Gainesville area and would like additional information on becoming a foster parent, you can contact Michelle Giordano (Partnership for Strong Families) at (352) 244-1684 or a licensing specialist at Florida Baptist Children’s Homes at (352) 672-6112. You can also hear more information directly from Kristy Sutton on her blog, Thishardcalling.com.