John Dumas of Avon Park wasn't too keen on the idea of becoming a foster parent. His wife Sarah had been interested for many years, but the father of four boys was apprehensive.
"We went to a 111 conference, and it kind of opened my eyes to the need," said John. The couple are pastors at Crossroads Community Church in Avon Park and are currently in the process of becoming licensed foster parents. "There is a need for children to be loved and not only that, but the parents. I think sometimes people are stereotyped, and sometimes it's that people just need help," he said.
The 111 Project (pronounced one, one, one) is a local initiative started by Missy Albritton, wife of state representative Dan Albritton, and pastor Darin Canary of the First Christian Church of Wauchula. Based on a similar program in Tennessee, the project name stands for "one church, one family, one purpose."
"We are going around to churches and saying if every church would identify just one family to foster or adopt in our area, we could have every child adopted in our area that needs a home and have enough foster homes," said Albritton.
Highlands County currently has 16 licensed foster families, according to Kim Daugherty, chief community relations officer for Heartland for Children, the organization that handles foster care placement in the three counties. The class the Dumases are taking includes seven new potential families in Highlands County, six of whom were recruited through the 111 Project, Daugherty said. She'd like to see 30 new homes open up in the county to meet current needs.
Jeff Roth, executive director for the Children's Advocacy Center, has set a goal to find 25 new foster families in Highlands County this year. Through speaking to groups and congregations about the 111 Project, Roth hopes to get the community involved to meet that goal by May 2014.
Daugherty said that 268 children are currently being served by Heartland for Children in Highlands County. Fifty-two of those are in licensed care (foster and group homes) and the rest live with relatives and non-relatives or at home with additional support.
Of those children, 73 percent have been placed outside of Highlands County, either because relatives or non-relatives live out of county or because there are no local foster homes for them.
Of the 52 children from Highlands County who were placed in foster care, only seven found foster homes within the county, stated Roth. "For me it's such a travesty that in Highlands County we do so many things that are great and positive, and we work so well together, but when a child has to be relocated to another community because we don't have a home to put them in, it's almost like we abuse them twice," he said.
When children are moved to another community, they are not only removed from their parents, but also their school, their friends and any extracurricular activities they may have enjoyed. Having enough foster homes to meet the community's needs also means that workers looking to place children can choose what they feel is the best home for a child, and not just an available one, said Daugherty.
"Foster Care is a service by which families offer temporary care for minor children who are not able to live with their biological parents. Foster families provide a loving, safe and secure home-like setting for children while their parents are receiving support, training and services so that they can be reunited with their children," reads the Heartland for Children web site.
The site also states that married couples, single adults and legally divorced and widowed adults are eligible to apply to be foster parents. All applicants must be 21 years of age or older.
There are three different types of licensed foster homes. All seven of the families in training are preparing to be licensed traditional foster homes, which can take on up to five children depending on how many children are already living in the home and other factors.
Foster parents can also become licensed as a therapeutic foster home. These homes can take in two children with increased needs such as mental health issues or multiple home therapy requirements.
The third type of home is a medical foster home. The children placed in these homes have complex medical needs, and the foster parents should possess a medical background, such as nursing.
There are currently no therapeutic or medical foster homes in Highlands County, Daugherty confirmed, and the number of traditional foster homes in Highlands County is not enough to meet the need.
One big misconception about foster parenting is that foster parents are in it for the money. "That is a huge myth," said Daugherty, adding that potential foster parents have to show financial stability and prove they have enough resources to care for themselves and their current biological children.
The board rate for a foster child depends on the age of the child and ranges from $429-$515, Daugherty said. That money is specifically to be used for the child, and Heartland for Children is committed to finding quality foster homes, she remarked.
Other objections include foster parents' fears of being reported to authorities by an angry foster kid and having their own kids taken away. While every report must be taken seriously and investigated, Daugherty confirmed that "just because a report is made doesn't mean we're going to swoop in and remove a child. We're going to find out what's really going on."
Another worry people have is about the invasiveness of the process. Two home visits are done to ensure safety measures like medications being locked up, pool safety, and a general health inspection. A background check is done as well.
Roth said he addresses this concern a lot when he speaks to congregations. He tells them, "I know that it's an inconvenience, but if you are a loving, Christian home, who cares if it's a little bit inconvenient?"
Parents also take a nine week training course where they learn topics such as the nuances of the system, how the brain of a traumatized child works, and how to relate to the biological parents. They meet with experienced foster parents and receive a mentor for the first year.
Carla Rice was a licensed foster parent for a year and is now caring for a child in her home as a non-relative placement. That means she's agreed to care for a foster child she already knows even though she isn't a family member. It's a step Heartland for Children takes before placing kids in a licensed foster home.
An elementary school media specialist in Sebring, Rice said she saw "a lot of sadness and need." There was one particular little girl who had been with the same foster family from kindergarten to the fourth grade. In the fourth grade, the girl told her she was having to move to a different county. Years later, the same situation happened again with another little girl.
"I said, 'I'll take her,'" Rice recounted. "They said, 'You can't. She's a foster child.'" In 2010, with her own children grown, Rice decided to take the step to become a foster parent.
She had a total of three foster kids in her home over the course of the year. "They do prepare you," she said of Heartland for Children. "It isn't like Mary Poppins. You may get children who don't know how to be loved," Rice said.
She said the kids she had in her home were behind academically as well as emotionally. "I felt I was so blessed, I felt impelled to share the blessing, but they don't think it's a blessing. They want to be with family and friends and the people they know," Rice explained.
One child adapted well, but another one came from a home with "terrible neglect," Rice said. "She was sweet and nice and did well in school, but she never relaxed enough to be happy where she was."
Rice added, "She just loved (her mother) so much, all she wanted was to go back."
Rice said she tries to be as "peaceful and calming" as she can when a child comes into her home. Her biggest challenge was working with the different players in the system and disagreements about what was best for a child. "In many cases you can't just do what a parent would do," Rice said.
Daugherty agreed that having so many entities involved is probably the biggest challenge for foster parents, rather than the kids themselves. Biological parents, medical professionals, the courts, guardians ad litem and case workers can all be a part of the decision-making process when it comes to medications and other factors affecting foster kids. "What does help is when all parties can come together and try to make the right decision in the interests of the child," Daugherty said.
But when she compared the challenges to the joys, Rice said she has had "not one minute of regret."
"Seeing the kids' eyes light up when something good was happening, when they had a feeling of success. Having them ask you to hug them and tuck them in bed - it changes your life," she stated.
Now six weeks into her nine-week training, Sarah Dumas' biggest fear is having to send a child away if he or she has issues she can't handle, making that child feel rejected.
"As far as being a Christian, the Bible tells us to take care of widows and orphans. These are today's modern-day orphans," said Sarah.
John Dumas said he's going to have a hard time letting go when it's time for the child to return home, but he's willing to face that.
The Dumases hope to inspire others and to see families "finally heal or at least begin to heal" said John. He added that the training is helping him overcome his initial apprehensions.
"I fought it for so long," said the pastor, adding, "It's really not as scary as you think."
Crossroads Community Church in Avon Park will be hosting a free Foster Family Fun Day on Nov. 17 from 12 p.m. to 4 p.m., open to the public. For more information on foster parenting in Highlands County, visit www.heartlandforchildren.org or call (863) 519-8900 ext 289. For more information on the 111 Project, contact Jeff Roth at the Children's Advocacy Center at (863) 402-6845.