Homes of Hope

foster care pensacola

It takes a whole village to raise a child: nothing could be more true than in the case of fostering children. The saying is not a low blow to moms and dads, implying they are incapable of parenting on their own; instead, it brings to light the fact that no parent is alone because the community can share in the role of shaping and steering the future of every child within its reach.

In our own community, spanning the four counties of Escambia, Santa Rosa, Okaloosa and Walton, FamiliesFirst Network (FFN) of Lakeview works hard to ensure neither parent nor child ever feels alone. The FFN is a community-based care agency contracted by Northwest Florida’s Circuit 1 Department of Children and Families to provide foster care and related services to the four counties listed above. The network includes Lakeview Center as the lead agency, sub-contracted service providers, foster parents, agency stakeholders, as well as the four-county region as a whole working together to implement community-based care. In Northwest Florida, FFN provides child protective services to families, independent living services for teens and youths who age out of foster care, adoptive services for children in the dependency system, and places foster children in licensed homes and residential facilities.

So, when could be a better time to explore foster parenthood and ways to help out local foster families than during May, Foster Care Appreciation Month? For this reason, Pensacola Magazine reached out to FFN’s foster care home recruitment and licensing managers, as well as two local foster parents, who outline what it means to be a foster parent and how you might extend your heart, if not your home, to local youth in need.

What is foster care?

In most cases, foster care means providing temporary care for children who have been removed from their biological, or “bio,” family for various reasons, some of which include abuse, abandonment, or neglect. By all means, foster care is intended to be a temporary situation and a way for foster parents to provide support and stability to children in need until the situation at home can be resolved. At FFN, all foster families are taught to embrace a family-centered practice, which encourages working with families of foster children, focusing on the family as a whole and not just the children. Biological family members are viewed as partners in the process of fostering, helping to define problems and identify solutions.

What does it mean to be a foster parent?

“Foster parenthood means you must be willing to take on the role of mentor,” says Dana Walker, mother of three and president of the Emerald Coast Foster/Adoptive Parent Association. “Not only for foster children, but for the biological parents and families who may be looking for guidance and a support system, too.”

Although each foster family’s level of engagement with the biological family is different, every foster family is expected to maintain a level of respect for the biological family to ensure the family and child maintain a positive and healthy bond. To encourage family engagement, foster parents are asked to provide transportation to visitation with the bio family and act as a third- party supervisor for visitation, as well as invite bio parents to medical appointments, teacher conferences and special events like plays and picnics, along with sending the foster child’s class and art work to the bio parents.

In addition to supporting relationships among foster children and their birth parents, the role of foster parent includes but is not limited to protecting and nurturing children in a safe environment with unconditional positive support, helping children cope with separation and loss, using discipline appropriate to a child’s age and stage of development, as well as building a child’s self-esteem, giving positive guidance, and supporting a foster child’s cultural identity and religious belief regardless of what your own may be.

“The benefits well outweigh the many challenges that come along with foster parenting,” said Jennifer Perry, a foster parent and mother of five who is also an elementary school teacher. “People often say they could never be a foster parent because they couldn’t give a child back. I would say that if it was easy to send a child home, you aren’t doing it right. If you want to make a difference in the life of a child, I cannot think of a better way.”

How do you become a foster parent?

Becoming a foster parent entails a rigorous licensing process, which is not for everyone. “While foster parenthood is not for everyone, everyone can do something to help the cause,” said Linda Roush, foster care recruitment manager at FamiliesFirst Network of Lakeview. “You can support a foster family by making donations on the FamiliesFirst Network Facebook page.”

Before entering the licensing process, you should be aware that every prospective foster parent must be at least 21 years old and earn sufficient income to support the household without relying on foster board payments from FFN. Also, being single does not disqualify you from becoming a foster parent as long as you earn enough to support you and your foster family. On the flip side, if you are either married or cohabitating, both parties are required to participate in foster parenting.

To receive your foster care license, you are required to first complete an online orientation followed by pre-service training. The online orientation and a short assessment quiz may be accessed on FFN’s website: familiesfirstnetwork.org. On the site, you’ll provide contact information that allows FFN’s recruitment manager Linda Roush and licensing manager Connie Werner to help you register for training. Finishing pre-service training means attending one class a week from 6 to 9 pm for a total of nine weeks, and these classes are held in Pensacola, Milton, Crestview and Fort Walton Beach.

“Many use pre-training as a test drive,” said Connie Werner, foster care licensing manager at FamiliesFirst Network of Lakeview. “Pre-training helps prospective foster parents make an educated decision on whether or not fostering will be right for their family. From there, you are not required to follow through with licensing, and it is not unusual for an individual or family to contact us more than once, as it may be anywhere from six months to a year before they feel ready to take on the role.”

Once you’ve completed the training, a counselor will be assigned to you to start working on a home study process, which means a series of background checks, home inspections, family assessment, DMV checks along with employment and personal references. Essentially, anything you’d want to know about a person who is going to take care of your child is what FFN looks to gather from prospective foster parents.

There’s also the matter of re-licensing, which every foster parent is required to complete at the end of every year. Re-licensing takes you through the same steps as the procedure for licensing, so more checks and evaluations, but instead of nine weeks of training you are only required to complete eight hours of training.

What does foster care look like in our area?

The number of children in foster care changes every day. As of February 2016, our four-county area had a total of 2,000 children in the care of FFN. In comparison, our region has 305 foster homes and is always in need of more.

Ten staff members at FFN are dedicated to training, licensing and re-licensing foster families, which are supervised by Connie. Linda manages two recruiters for foster care; one recruiter reaches out to residents of Escambia and Santa Rosa counties, while the other covers Okaloosa and Walton counties, both extending the reach of FFN in the hopes of inspiring others to become foster parents.

When placing children in foster care, FFN aims to keep children in the same county as the home from which they are being removed, so the children may maintain some sense of continuity and stability by staying in the same school and interacting with familiar faces. FFN also assesses each child’s individual needs, making a decision on home placement according to factors like behavior, age and background. Besides traditional foster homes, there are several placement options for foster children, including matrix, therapeutic, and medical foster homes, as well as group homes and treatment facilities. Matrix homes are for children who may have minor behavioral issues, while a step up from matrix homes are therapeutic homes for children with significant behavioral issues. For foster children who may require care from a person with a medical background, there are medical foster homes, while children who have suffered abuse may be placed at a local treatment facility. For children who may not have a foster home placement yet, and for those who have aged out of the foster care system, there are group homes.

FFN enlists the help of subcontractors like Children’s Home Society, Florida Baptist, and United Methodist Children’s Home for providing placements for children in the foster care system. Out of the 305 total foster homes in the four-county area, 67 homes are provided by aforementioned subcontractors.

Businesses, organizations and others from the local community also reach out to foster families through partnership and collaborations with FFN. For instance, the recent partnership between Papa John’s Pizza and FFN was forged so that all foster families in the area can be treated to a free dinner of pizza, cookies and soda delivered for one night, so the family has chance to enjoy a meal together without worrying about the mess of cooking and cleaning.

What are some resources for foster care parents?

If you’re ever feeling tentative about your choice to enter foster parenthood, remember that in each of the four counties there are groups for foster and adoptive parents, such as Escambia County’s Emerald Coast Foster/Adoptive Parent Association. You can bet your local group of parents will have helpful advice and answers to your questions about what to expect in court, or how to navigate the foster care system. The association meets on the third Monday of every month at 6 pm on the Crown Church campus (9600 N. Palafox St.). At foster care training sessions, you’ll likely meet a representative from one of the four county foster/adoptive parent associations promoting awareness about the group and the fact that no foster, or adoptive, parent is ever alone. Outside of monthly meetings, which count toward the hours needed for foster care re-licensing, the association holds events during the summer, for back to school functions, and they organize fun programs like gift exchanges during the holidays.

“My biggest piece of advice is make sure you have a support system,” said Walker. “I am thankful for the strong relationships I’ve developed with other parents in the association. We’re an extended family and there’s always someone you can call who’s been in your situation, or one like it.”

Should you be a foster parent? Find out if fostering might be the right fit for you by viewing a full list of requirements along with qualities FFN looks for in all potential foster care candidates online at familiesfirstnetwork.org.

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