Second Annual Community and Network Awards

January 25, 2011

Family Services of Metro Orlando held its second annual Community and Network Awards ceremony on Tuesday, January 25, 2011.  Among the award recipients were the parents of a celebrity athlete, an international corporation and a former foster youth.  Among the award recipients:

Dwight, Sr. and Sheryl Howard, who hosted a weeklong series of inspirational afterschool activities with disadvantaged and foster youth.  They followed that success by spending their Christmas Eve with 30 of our foster youth and taking one lucky winner to Los Angeles to watch their famous son, Dwight Howard, Jr. and the Orlando Magic, play against the Lakers. Most recently, they partnered with their son’s foundation to provide support and mentorship to over 40 foster local teens through the 2010 Summer Enrichment Camp.

IKEA, which worked with Family Services to identify and develop opportunities to support the Heart Gallery of Metro Orlando.  In 2010, IKEA agreed to provide their signature home furnishings for a redesign of the gallery with a more home-like feel.  Since this new design was unveiled in September, it has received highly positive reviews while generating donations and offers of volunteer support.  In fact, the new Heart Gallery has generated more attention to children awaiting adoption in just six months than was received over the preceding four years.

Gerry Glynn, a tremendous advocate for our community’s children.  In addition to his long service as a volunteer attorney ad litem for foster youth, he recently worked with us to develop a community taskforce after a developmentally disabled former foster youth was murdered through a series of unfortunate circumstances and poor personal choices.  The taskforce developed a series of practical guidelines to better the chances developmentally disabled youth age out of foster care have at succeeding on their own.

Case managers, Arlene Cruz, Jessica Rodriguez and Michelle McMahon, for outstanding service to protect vulnerable children and strengthen families.  Arlene, Jessica and Michelle are from child welfare agencies Devereux Florida, One Hope United and Children’s Home Society, respectively.

Director of the case management program at Youth and Family Alternatives , Brigitte Brown, for creating innovative solutions leading to meaningful positive change in the lives of children and families.

Family support worker, Asim Bhatti, from Children’s Home Society who volunteers his personal time to transport foster children to visits with their family members.

Former foster youth, Ashtavia Maddox, who never lets personal challenges diminish her voice which she uses in advocacy for youth in foster care and those at risk of entering foster care.  Her leadership in advocacy on behalf of others exemplifies our belief that everyone can lead.

In fulfillment of our commitment to create a better world for our children, we now use a sustainable bamboo design from Eco Promotional Products for our award plaques.  Eco even planted a tree on our behalf.  This tree will remove about 50 pounds of pollution from the global atmosphere every year, helping to create a cleaner environment for our children.

We congratulate all awardees and nominees for their outstanding service to the children and families of Central Florida.  Photos of the awards and awardees can be found at


Third Thursday at CityArts Factory with the Heart Gallery

January 11, 2011

Invitation to Third Thursday at CityArts Factory

Second Annual Community Network Awards Ceremony

January 11, 2011

Invitiation to Community Network Awards Ceremony

Family Services Staff: Making the Season Brighter for Families

December 23, 2010

With the upcoming transition of oversight of Orange and Osceola counties’ child welfare services to a new lead agency in April, this holiday season has been filled with uncertainty for the staff of Family Services of Metro Orlando. Yet our commitment to empowering our community to create possibilities remains unchanged, even in the midst of personal crisis. In the past month, many of our staff members have gone above and beyond to share some much-needed cheer with the children and families we serve.

At our staff holiday lunch in mid-December, each person received a Target giftcard from our Board of Directors. At the same time, our Prevention and Diversion Specialists were collecting donations of warm winter clothing for 75 homeless families living in the Margaret Square community of Winter Park. When our staff members learned that many of the families had children and could not afford coats to protect them from this year’s near-record low winter temperatures, many of them chose to immediately donate their giftcards as well as cash and new coats to help. Together with other donations from our community, we were able to directly help keep these children safe this winter.

Shortly afterwards, another urgent need came to the attention of our Prevention and Diversion Team. A hardworking local family was going through a difficult financial situation and needed a crib for their infant. Through an all-staff e-mail chain, our team was able to generate and assemble a new crib for the family. Monetary donations directly from staff members were used to purchase a much-needed crib mattress as well. 

To further help families struggling financially this time of year, Family Services Resource Specialists decided to use funds earned in a 2009 fundraiser to create gift baskets for families who were unable to afford a Christmas dinner this year. Through each of our Case Management Organizations, they were able to make the season a little brighter for 20 families with both dry and perishable food items as well as giftcards.

But the most valuable aspect of the work that we do is knowing that we are not alone in our desire to give every child a healthy, happy childhood during this holiday season. Our community cares about children in need, too.

While standing in line at a crowded store to purchase a specific coat requested by a youth, Prevention and Diversion Specialist Diana Curry discovered that she did not have enough money for the item.  

“We thought we would have to leave without it, but a lady standing behind us us donated $20 to help us complete the money for the coat,” said Diana. “Many thanks goes out to her…Our families were just ecstatic to receive the coats we bought!”

 And several days later, when we were contacted by a future foster family asking how they could help children this Christmas, Family Development Specialist Trinity Kimble directed them to our involvement with the Kissimmee Parks and Recreation Christmas Drive. The couple responded by donating $500 worth of toys and coats for children in need.

“I am ever grateful that I have had the opportunity to give back and pay it forward through my job,” said Trinity. “[Our entire staff] deserves kudos for our relentless sacrifices and dedicated commitments to all those we serve.”

Family Services Staff is proud to serve Orange and Osceola counties. We wish you a joyous season!

Adopted Siblings Now Have A Home for the Holidays

December 23, 2010

The new Alford family on National Adoption Day 2010

Last year, six siblings spent the holiday wishing for a forever family; this year, they can cross that item off their wish lists.

 Bryan and Carla Alford met five of their future children at an adoption matching event hosted by Family Services of Metro Orlando and Wendy’s Wonderful Kids in 2008. To the children – three girls and two boys – the event passed in a blur of balloons, face painting and games; but to the Alfords, the faces of the five children remained vivid in their memory. When they saw the same siblings at another adoption matching event a year later, they couple began to realize what might happen to the children over the next few years if nothing changed.

 “We asked ourselves, ‘If we don’t [adopt these kids], who will?’” said Bryan. “The time was quickly approaching where they would have had to try and be adopted individually. But the kids wanted to be together and… we didn’t want any of them to grow up wondering ‘Why didn’t anyone want me?’”

 This year, Bryan and Carla finalized the adoption of the youngest sibling, a two-year-old baby girl, and then adopted the five remaining siblings two months later during a National Adoption Day celebration in Osceola County on November 19, 2010. 

 Over the past five years, Bryan and Carla Alford have cared for nearly 35 local children as foster parents in Osceola County, Florida. Some have stayed in their home as briefly as one night, while others have remained there for up to three years. The Alfords maintain contact with many of the foster children they previously cared for, now as extended family and members of the children’s support networks.

 Now, as the holidays quickly approach, the Alford household is expected to be both hectic and heartwarming. The children have never seen so many presents under one tree and the reality that the gifts are all for them has yet to fully sink in.

 “I’m looking forward to Christmas ‘cause there’s lots of present boxes under the tree,” said nine-year-old Ivy, the eldest of the group. “And I’m happy because now we get to spend all the holidays together… It feels good to be adopted.”

Household of Heroes

November 11, 2010
Wilson McEachern

Wilson McEachern

Long before he was a hero to his country, Wilson McEachern was a foster child in need of a hero of his own.

Today, he is many things: a Marine, a patriot and a hero. This past year during an IED explosion in Afghanistan, he assisted his Sergeant in pulling a fellow marine out of a flaming vehicle. Because of this brave action, as well as other combat leadership initiatives, he was given a meritorious battlefield promotion to the rank of Corporal.

Wilson met his adoptive parents when he was just three years old. Leigh and Pam McEachern already had a combined family of five teenagers when they began fostering children and were not interested in raising another family. But today, Wilson is the eldest of their eight adopted children and whole household is made up of heroes:

• Wilson’s younger adoptive brother, Christopher, is serving in the United States Army Reserves, and is scheduled for deployment to Iraq in the spring of 2011.
• Pam’s eldest biological daughter and her husband, who also served in the United States Army, have four adopted children.
• Pam’s youngest biological son and his wife recently earned their foster parenting license following the birth of their second child.
• Leigh and Pam have provided respite for other foster and adoptive families they know, as well as provided short-term care for nine local foster children through the Florida Department of Children and Families.

“My dad was in the military, so it was something I always thought I’d like to try doing,” said McEachern. “If I hadn’t been adopted, I could be on the street selling drugs right now; If I hadn’t been raised in the home I was raised in, my life could have been very different, but I am so thankful that it is what it is.”

The 21-year-old spent his formative years growing up in the Florida countryside surrounded by his family, while hunting deer, showing goats in 4H competitions and attending school around his kitchen table. After completing his high school degree at the early age of 16, he spent a semester at Seminole Community College. There he met a recruiter for the United States Marines and his sense of duty led him to join the armed forces following his eighteenth birthday.

Because of his adoption, Wilson now has three families – one with the McEacherns and his 13 siblings; one with his new wife, Bethany; and the other with the United States Marines.


October 26, 2010
A New Child Welfare Lead Agency is Selected to Negotiate with DCF to Serve Orange and Osceola Counties.

ORLANDO, Fla. – The Department of Children and Families today announced its intent to negotiate exclusively with Community Based Care of Seminole to become the lead agency for child welfare services in Orange and Osceola Counties – the area currently served by Family Services of Metro Orlando.

Although DCF sought proposals for Orange and Osceola Counties only, Community Based Care of Seminole
proposed a tri-county system of child welfare services that included Seminole County. Family Services of Metro Orlando was prohibited by law from presenting an “equal opportunity” tri-county proposal.

“DCF’s decision today was not an indictment of our performance, which has been consistently strong, or of the value we have brought to our community,” said Grant Lacerte, chair of Family Services’ Board of Directors. “Family Services of Metro Orlando is a nationally accredited, successful and proven lead agency. We owe it to our community to bring our concerns forward.”

Family Services of Metro Orlando has completed record numbers of foster care adoptions in each year of its
existence and invests millions of dollars annually in child abuse prevention programs. It is the first accredited and successful lead agency for child welfare services in Florida to be replaced for reasons other than performance concerns. DCF has noted no performance deficits and has issued no corrective action requirements.

“While we are obviously disappointed, our hearts are really with the children who must undergo yet another transition in their lives which are already too filled with instability,” said Greg Kurth, CEO of Family Services of Metro Orlando. “The challenge for the next provider will be to move their ideas and proposals from paper to reality in this region with the least harmful disruption possible.”

Only West Virginia has a higher number of child abuse allegations per capita than Florida, and most of Florida’s allegations of child abuse originate in Orange and Osceola Counties, the region served by Family Services of Metro Orlando. It is one of the worst-funded in the nation, per capita, for child welfare services.

The announcement by DCF did not provide a rationale for the abrupt shift in direction.

Poverty Rates Hit a 51-Year High

October 20, 2010

The number of Americans in poverty reached a 51-year high according to the U.S. Census Bureau. In Florida, more than 15% of children are now living in poverty, and Orange County poverty rates are among the highest in the state. This infographic from tells the story.

Mint Poverty Map

Child abuse is directly correlated with poverty rates, and we have seen an increase in the number of children entering the child protection system in Orange and Osceola Counties due to abuse and neglect over the past year. Unfortunately, rates of child abuse tend to increase as government funding for child protection decreases. Private sector funding is critical now more than ever to keep our children safe. Support our children today for a better, safer tomorrow.

Upcoming Events – October 2010

October 14, 2010

Please click here to view the October 2010 events calendar.

Child Welfare Agencies Unite to Advocate for Renewal of the Title IV-E Waiver

October 14, 2010

What is the Title IV-E Waiver and why is it important to Florida’s children?

Under the Social Security Act, Title IV-E provides grants to states for aid and services to needy families and families with children and child welfare services. It allows funding to be distributed to states to be used to fund out-of-home care activities. On March 31, 2006, Florida was granted a Title IV-E Waiver, which allowed for a more flexible spending of these federal dollars at a local level. In its four year existence, the state has used the waiver to create and expand upon innovative practices within its 20 Community-Based Care agencies statewide, including Family Services of Metro Orlando. The Title IV-E Waiver allowed Federal funding to be used in support of Family Team Conferencing and Family Finders programs, domestic violence prevention measures, mental health and substance abuse treatment for children, prevention and diversion services, parenting-skills classes and foster parent recruitment and retention efforts.

If not renewed, the Title IV-E waiver will sunset in 2011 and end the flexibility of this funding. In the absence of the waiver, the federal money that was once used to help prevent the necessary removal of children from their homes will only be able to help them after they have entered the state foster care system.

“The Title IV-E Waiver enables us to use money that has already been allocated to our local system in ways that are more innovative than in the past – ways that are proven to help us keep children safe in their own homes,” said Gregory Kurth, CEO for Family Services of Metro Orlando. “If we lose the waiver option, we will be loosing the ability to use money we had in the past in ways that were proven to safely lower the number of children in foster care… We view the potential loss of the waiver as a huge step backward in the care of children nationwide.”

The waiver will remain available to Florida’s child welfare system until next year, but it must be passed by both the House of Representatives and the Senate in order to remain in effect. On July 29, 2010 the House of Representatives’ Committee on Ways and Means’ Subcommittee meet to discuss income security and family support. Child welfare organizations from across the nation gathered to present their thoughts on the Title IV-E Waiver. William Bell, President and CEO of Casey Family Programs – the nation’s largest operating foundation committed to the needs of children in foster care – spoke on the importance of the flexibility the waiver provides.

“The fact that Title IV-E funding cannot be used for prevention or post-reunification services [without the waiver] has created a significant challenge to achieving better safety outcomes and finding permanent homes for children,” said Bell. “Federal funding should be available for a broader array of services that address not only out-of-home care, but services that also address the root causes of child abuse and neglect, services that strengthen families, and services that expedite the process of finding a safe permanent home for children who are in foster care.”

Because prevention services can be administered at such a dramatic reduction of cost to the state than foster care services, many agencies who have taken advantage of the Title IV-E Waiver funding have managed to keep children safer, for less cost. Through the waiver, money saved through the process of stabilizing a child in his home without removal, has been returned to Florida’s lead agencies in order to expand such programs to continue keeping children safe. Agencies and organizations in Florida, Ohio, Oregon, Indiana and California are among the strongest proponents of the waiver.

At the same hearing before the House of Representatives’ committee, George Sheldon, Secretary of the Florida Department of Children and Families, stated:

“When I came to the Department in January 2007 as Assistant Secretary, implementation of the waiver was in its very early stages. Under Governor Charlie Crist, Secretary Bob Butterworth, and with the strong support of our community-based partners, we made successful implementation of the waiver one of our highest priorities… Before the IV-E waiver, we spent $7.96 on out-of-home care for every dollar we spent on in-home services, family preservation, prevention and diversion. By 2009, this ratio had dropped from $7.96 to $3.60, signaling a significant shift in focus… The IV-E waiver has allowed us to align our program goals with program funding.”

Following the July committee hearing, the House of Representatives passed the Title IV-E Waiver continuation; however, it must also be passed in the Senate in order to be continued.

In August 2011, David Bundy, Chief Executive Officer of Children’s Home Society’s Central Florida division – a case management organization and partner of Family Services – testified before the Senate Foster Care Caucus on the importance of the waiver. Bundy has taken an especially vested interest in this issue because he himself was a victim of abuse as a child. He is an invaluable advocate on behalf of children and families and has committed his life to improving social services.

The bill was received in the Senate and referred to its Committee on Finance on September 24, 2010.

For more information on the Title IV-E waiver and its importance to Florida’s children, read an earlier blog post by our partner Children’s Home Society here.