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.”


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.


Adoption Matching Event Promotes Service Learning

September 4, 2010

Camp Wewa

Family Services and Wendy’s Wonderful Kids Camp Wewa Project Combines Service-Learning with Adoption Matching Process

On August 28, more than 30 foster youth gathered at YMCA Camp Wewa to help build park benches and possible family connections. This adoption matching event, sponsored by Family Services of Metro Orlando and Wendy’s Wonderful Kids, used this service-learning project as a tool, giving foster youth a way to interact with potential parents in a stress-free environment.

“This event was an amazing success,” said Chala Barrington-Cruz, Wendy’s Wonderful Kids Adoption Recruiter. “Kids and parents were working together to accomplish a goal and I think they really bonded during it.”

Two groups of pre-matched parents and foster youth completed 32 park benches to be used in Camp Wewa’s 60-year-old outdoor chapel. Younger children also participated in painting the outside of two cabins. Youth were so engaged in the project that many chose to continue working on benches instead of having a water balloon fight.

Family Services of Metro Orlando partners with Camp Wewa over the summer to send foster youth to camp each year. Twelve-year-old Julius spent a week at Camp Wewa during the summer and returned to help with the service-learning project.

“This is the first time I’ve ever built something,” said Julius, who is featured in the Heart Gallery of Metro Orlando. “I really liked coming out here and learning how to do things. I met a lot of nice people, too.”

The event was sponsored by Wendy’s Wonderful Kids and Embraced by Grace. Dennis Grenier, facility director of Camp Wewa, and Wanda Landry, facility services, led the event along with Chala Barrington-Cruz and Shanda Moorman, Wendy’s Wonderful Kids adoption recruiters, and AmeriCorps VISTA volunteers Colleen Shea and David Fain. In 2010, there have been three service learning projects and four adoption matching events, but this is the first time the events have been combined.


Foster Parent Resources and Appreciation Events

July 8, 2010
We strive to equip and value our incredible foster parents.

Did you know?
Family Services is committed to supporting our foster parents through every step of their journey as loving, temporary parents to the children of Orange and Osceola Counties. Our foster parent support team, Maria Narvaez, Foster Parent Assistant, and Victor Salgado, Foster Parent Liaison, work together to answer any questions and address any concerns our foster parents may have.
Additionally, we offer two important resources – a Foster Parent Handbook and a Foster Parent Resource Guide – each filled with creative ideas, practical solutions and motivating parenting tips to help keep foster parents empowered and enthusiastic. Our Foster Parent Advocate newsletter is sent out each month to keep parents aware of upcoming Foster Parent Association Meetings, Community Awareness Orientations and Adoptive Parent Support Groups.
This summer, Family Services of Metro Orlando held two Foster Parent Appreciation events.
On May 22, 2010, in partnership with Devereux, Children’s Home Society, Youth and Family Alternatives and One Hope United, Family Services put together a fun-filled event at the Colonial Lanes Bowling Alley. Foster parents and their children enjoyed hours of free bowling, pizza, soda and door prizes and had fun meeting their Family Services Foster Parent Support team.
On June 5, 2010 the Kissimmee Belk location hosted Children’s Home Society, Youth and Family Alternatives and Family Services of Metro Orlando for an in-store event. Skate Reflections, Gatorland, Medieval Times Dinner Theater and Planet Beach Spa provided raffle prizes and Kissimmee Family Wellness provided free therapeutic massages for foster parents. Family Services’ Foster Parent Support Team would especially like to thank to Janira Gomez, Belk Community Marketing Liaison, for partnering with us for this event.

Interested in fostering or adopting a child? Please call 1-877-6MYKIDS.


From Violence to Victory

May 21, 2010
A Central Florida teen is shot during an attempted robbery, but recovers with a new outlook on life.

A Downward Spiral

Cornelius Turner never dreamed he would be where he is today.

Born in San Bernardino, California, Neil lived in Tennessee for several months before moving with his single mother and brother to Orlando, Florida at three years of age. Living on Mercy Drive, Neil earned above average grades in elementary and middle school, although he did not particularly enjoy academics.

Upon attending Evans High School in ninth grade, Neil began to allow his negative environment to change his attitudes and ambitions. He began snatching wallets and books from fellow students, stealing cars, drinking liquor and smoking marijuana before finally becoming a drug dealer himself. As he embedded himself deeper and deeper into the street culture which surrounded him, his actions grew evermore reckless. Caught up entirely in pleasures of the moment, the street culture offered him easy access to money, women and mind-numbing substances. He repeatedly ignored warning signs that his situation was spiraling out of control.

In the tenth grade, Neil’s life changed forever. A few days after a successful hold-up, Neil and his usual friends decided to rob a man they saw entering a convenience store. But when it came time to initiate the plan, Neil’s friends backed out, leaving him to go on alone. During the confrontation that followed, the would-be victim shot Neil in the back.

A Violent Culture

The adolescent years play an integral role in the mental development of youth. Lifestyles and skills developed at this time can have a deep impact on how individuals behave as adults. According to statistics published by the Annie E. Casey Foundation’s Kids Count Data Center, 7,302 youth under the age of 18 spent residential time in juvenile detention and correctional facilities in 2006.That same year, approximately 836 Florida teens between the ages of 15 to 19 died from all causes; 656 of these teens died violent deaths by either homicide, suicide or accident.

Steve Dalsemer, director of the Orange County Juvenile Assessment Center, reported that in 2009, just over 8,200 children under 18 years of age were arrested and processed through his center.

A Change in Vision

Neil’s life could have ended in that one, painful moment. Paramedics quickly transported him to a local hospital, where doctors described his prognosis as grim. The bullet had severed his ninth vertebrae, leaving him paralyzed from the waist down. The resulting trauma kept him in a coma for nearly two and a half months. He regained consciousness on his sixteenth birthday and entered a rehabilitation therapy program. Several more months passed until his condition improved enough for his mother to take him home.

Although a visiting nurse tended to his needs at first, her visits soon became irregular and then stopped completely. His mother could not correctly deal with her son’s medical needs alone. As a result, Neil suffered from a septic infection due to bedsores, which caused him to return to the hospital for nearly eight more months. Due to the seriousness of his condition, the Florida Department of Children and Families intervened to place Neil in a medical foster home in January of 2010.

A New Dream

After his 18th birthday, this courageous young man has decided to share his experiences with the world. As a fortunate survivor of a brutally violent teen culture, he earnestly believes he has a message for others who may be facing the same choices he made three years ago.

“I’m young, so [I’m] a better person to reach out and talk to them and they’ll have a better understanding through me than some [older person]” said Neil. “You know, its all about how you make your decisions. If you wanna be a drug dealer, [you can be] be a drug dealer. If you wanna be a star, you can be a star. You know, anybody can be what they wanna be as long as they put the[ir] mind to it.”

Amidst the uncertainties that lie ahead of him, Neil knows one thing: he possesses a gift for music. Although he has had no formal training, he plays guitar, drums, harmonica and piano all by ear and he holds a deep passion for writing free-style rap about his life. “The reason I’m putting it out in music is ‘cause its a better way of communicating to people…They can do whatever they wanna do [after they hear it]. I’m just giving a warning. They say warning comes before destruction.”

For this extraordinary young man, life has taken on a new meaning with the possibility of following his musical dreams to a lasting purpose. “[My message] is this right here,” he boldly stated. “This goes out to everybody out there who’s going through somethin’. Just know that you gonna find the sunshine outside in the rain… Keep your head up.”


Foster Youth Mentoring Program Launched in Our Community

April 12, 2010
New initiative matches foster teens with caring adults to provide guidance and support.

On Tuesday, March 31, 2010, the Community Service Center of Central Florida, a division of Family Services of Metro Orlando, together with the Florida Mentoring Partnership, hosted a mentor matching ceremony to launch the Foster Youth Mentoring Program in Orange and Osceola counties.

Prior to the event, thirty-seven local adult volunteers participated in vigorous screening and training sessions in preparation for their role as mentors. During the ceremony, 29 youth, ages 13 to 18, from both Sunnyside Village and Great Oaks Village group homes were matched with 20 mentors. Youth housed in these long-term group care facilities were selected because studies by the Anne E. Casey Foundation have consistently shown that teens in group settings need additional one-on-one adult support. Furthermore, by the age of nine years, a child in foster care is more likely to remain in the foster care system than to be adopted. Together these facts demonstrate the life-changing potential of this program.

The Community Service Center is proud to serve as the program’s pilot site for the upcoming year. Denise Hogan, Mentoring Project Coordinator with Family Services of Metro Orlando through the Community Service Center, and Lee Pates, Senior Director of the Community Service Center, as well as Roxann Campbell and Michael Thompson, both of the Volunteer USA Foundation and Florida Mentoring Partnership, were instrumental in bringing this project to fruition.

The Foster Youth Mentoring Program has garnered interest by members of the Florida Children’s Cabinet and Legislature. Lieutenant Governor Jeff Kottkamp, chair the Florida Children and Youth Cabinet, has voiced his support of the program. “With the ongoing support of an adult mentor, we offer Florida’s foster youth a better chance at educational success and ultimately a fulfilling life ahead. Our hope is that because they’re receiving one-on-one attention and guidance from a compassionate mentor, they’ll have a better shot at becoming an independent, confident and successful adult.” Emmanuel Tormes, Special Assistant to the Governor, attended the matching ceremony.

Due to a generous financial grant by the Darden Foundation, the initiative will be rigorously evaluated by the Florida Mentoring Partnership in the fall of 2011. The status of the matches will be considered in addition to the number of credit hours earned by the students in school, the number of mentees who pass into the next grade level, the number of senior mentees who receive scholarships, school attendance and discipline data and student attitudes about their mentor and the impact of the program.

During a time of state-wide budget crisis, we at Family Services of Metro Orlando are particularly proud to be a high-impact community based care agency in Florida’s Circuit 9. We will continue to provide support to these mentor-mentee matches in the upcoming year.

Family Services would like to thank Publix at Baldwin Park, Walmart Neighborhood Markets and the Sam’s Club foundation for providing resources and support to the matching event.


Quality Parenting Initiative and “Rebranding” Foster Care

April 1, 2010

This essay first appeared in the Spring newsletter of the Eckerd Family Foundation, and we found it through the Connected by 25 blog. It is an excellent piece on changes that are happening in Florida foster care. The Quality Parenting Initiative (QPI) is part of our ongoing commitment to meeting and exceeding standards of excellence for the licensed care of foster youth. Read our previous post on the QPI.

Quality Parenting Initiative and “Rebranding” Foster Care: Carole Shauffer and Youth Law Center

All children need high quality parenting until they are fully mature. Many of us may be surprised to learn, though, that this process extends until the child reaches the mid-twenties, when the areas of the brain associated with judgment and reasoning become more fully developed.

“Parenting, as distinct from caring for a child, involves meeting the child’s social, emotional and cognitive developmental needs as well as the physical needs,” says Carole Shauffer, Executive Director of the Youth Law Center, an Eckerd Family Foundation grantee. “Although adolescents may be able to meet many of their own physical needs, they still require guidance and support for healthy development.”

This issue, one of great importance for any child, becomes even more significant for children who receive parenting from someone other than biological or adoptive parents, often through a foster parent system. Shauffer notes that over the years, many professionals have failed to recognize that foster children may need better quality, more sophisticated parenting services than other children. “Once damaged, these children must overcome their distorted responses,” she says.

“This can be a heartbreaking situation. Foster kids feel they are second class citizens who never receive their favorite foods, are never asked what they would really like and experience a demoralizing existence,” she says. “We must change practice so that everything we do reflects our mission to provide quality care and a better life for them.”

The Youth Law Center grant sought to tackle these issues by improving services to Florida’s dependent children in the care and custody of the Department of Children and Families (DCF), with the goal of having a positive effect on up to 20,000 children in two ways:

Assist DCF in improving its quality assurance program to address critical issues for children and assure they are moving toward permanency
Assist DCF in developing a model for foster parent recruitment, retention and support that can be used by local community based care agencies
Other aspects of the project include:

Educate and involve private philanthropy and business in child welfare reform efforts
Develop an effective public/private and nonprofit partnership for local implementation
“We wanted to provide high quality parenting to children in the child welfare system and increase the number of excellent foster families, which means we had to be able to define high quality parenting, as well as how to recruit and retain the best foster families,” says Shauffer.
In an innovative approach that incorporates progressive business concepts, Shauffer has posited this as an external and internal branding issue, whose underlying principles include the following:

The foster parent “brand” is seriously damaged
One cannot create a new brand without reassessing the role of foster families
A new brand is useless without changes in practice
A quality foster parent brand is core to the success or failure of the system
“By external branding, I mean our promise to prospective foster parents and the community in general that foster parents will be respected, well trained, skilled partners in providing high quality parenting,” she says. “The best foster parents are highly skilled, committed people. They can provide a much higher level of aptitude, patience and love than we had ever asked for. This is a huge change in our brand promise.”

As for the internal branding aspect, she is referring to training staff to internalize, articulate and support the brand; understanding their role in the identification, recruitment, training and, most important, support of high quality foster parents who epitomize the brand. “We need to move beyond the minimum level of performance to express real customer service in support of the brand.”

Last year, working with three Community Based Care demonstration sites in the state that agreed to serve as peer mentors to future participants (CBC of Seminole, Hillsborough Kids and Big Bend Community Based Care), the Youth Law Center sought to identify and use relevant data, define and assess quality foster parenting, provide marketing and targeted recruitment guidance, establish proper recruitment and retention processes, improve utilization of homes to serve special populations and apply human resource principles in support and retention.

This year four additional CBCs — Eckerd Community Alternatives, Heartland for Children, Family Services of Metro Orlando and Child and Family Connections — have joined the project.
As a result of this process, all three of the original CBCs have clearly defined expectations of foster parents, modified their recruitment materials to reflect the new vision and identified changes in practice to support the new vision. In summary, they have already begun to achieve systemic change in messaging and behaviors related to the foster parenting process. The next phase will be the continuation of efforts with the seven targeted CBCs, assisting additional CBCs and working with targeted CBCs and DCF to develop a new approach to foster parent training and recognition.

“We are so positive about what we have been able to accomplish to date,” says Shauffer. “The real knowledge comes from the people who are dedicated to being excellent foster parents. We believe people are hungry for meaning in their lives and want to find important volunteerism opportunities. If we can provide the training and necessary resources, as well as the respect to keep their spirits up, we will be unstoppable.”