While Highlands County has a close-knit community that is like family, more people need to step up and help children who have been placed in the “system,” exhorted several local child advocates Tuesday.
In his “call to arms,” Circuit Court Judge Peter Estrada reminded people to “really examine” what happens when a child is removed from a home because of abuse, neglect or another reason.
The occasion was the annual Pinwheels for Prevention, which kicks off Child Abuse Prevention Awareness Month in April.
Holding pinwheels in their hands, those gathered at the Highlands County Courthouse front lawn, heard the importance of not just preventing child abuse but helping its victims navigate through difficult circumstances.
Such kids may be with grandparents or foster parents, Estrada said, and may need access to greater resources to help them succeed: from free tutoring to making sure they get the vaccine they need to play football or baseball or even a dress to make high school prom special.
“How (else) are they going to escape what they are coming from?” asked Estrada, who is assigned to the juvenile bench of the courthouse and sees these cases first-hand.
While Estrada asked people to be more aware of what kids who are removed from home go through and be more engaged in helping them when that happens, another child advocate talked about the need for local foster homes.
Jeff Roth, director of the Champion for Children Advocacy Center and the Children’s Services Council, said lack of local foster homes forces kids to be “cast off” in “far-off” places.
He explained in a later interview that when kids need to be placed outside of their home, the system first tries to identify a relative or a family friend.
If no caregiver is found, there is an “overwhelming possibility” the kids end up being placed somewhere in “Central Florida and beyond” because of the lack of local foster parents.
“Relocating them to another county and school system is cruel,” he said. “It’s because we have not offered the children a loving home here…We have to fix this problem.”
He talked about Project 1-1-1, which the Children’s Services Council has spearheaded in Highlands County.
The One Church, One Family, One Purpose program is asking local churches to help support one foster child each by identifying a family that would make a good foster home and helping that child with support services.
“This is not a bold vision or a new idea,” he said. “But what is expected of people of faith.”
Also marking the occasion was an announcement Lake Placid’s STR8UP Youth Ministries’ founder shared with the audience.
Sammy Telesco said Tuesday was his last day with Big T Tires as he and his wife were going full-time into youth ministry.
By summer, STR8UP’s center in Lake Placid would be open full-time and a second storey was being planned at the location.
“We are going to let God be God,” he said, while announcing his new endeavor.
As of Jan. 1, STR8UP had 192 registered kids with an average of 70 kids visiting the center to avail of its free services – from tutoring to sports to Bible classes.
Telesco’s ultimate goal is to open a center in Sebring and Avon Park, as well.
“We are a countywide mission,” he said.
While applauding a drop in juvenile crime, Telesco said work still remains to be done.
“Advocacy must start sooner,” he said. “We need to invest time, resources…we must be problem solvers, not finger pointers.”