ON THE RADAR
Need for foster parents in Southwest Florida has never been greater
Has the idea of fostering a child ever tugged at your heartstrings? Now may be the time to act on it, as the need for foster parents has never been greater. In fact, since 2015 the number of local children needing foster care has increased 20 percent.
Christina Dennis felt the tug to help out 11 years ago. Since then, she and her husband, Rob, have cared for 75-plus children ranging in age from two days to 17 years.
“We typically have multiple children at a time, frequently consisting of a sibling group,” says Dennis. Some foster children stay a day or two, some for several years, and sometimes they stay forever. In fact, the Dennis family adopted two girls from foster care. “Brooke is now nine, and Alana is almost ten. We got Alana when she was 9 months old, and Brooke straight from the NICU [neonatal intensive care unit],” says Dennis. Both girls were 2 years old when the Dennis family adopted them.
It takes a team working together to ensure the safety and well-being of foster children, and foster parents are just one part of the team that is also made up of case workers and supervisors.
To get started as a foster parent, interested parties must attend a six-week training class with four online components. Family development specialists are assigned to help complete the necessary paperwork for licensure. Licensure also includes background screening on all adult household members and two home visits to gather information for a free-of-charge home study, a screening of the home that is required by law.
Children’s Network of Southwest Florida is the lead agency for a five-county region working with different providers, such as Lutheran Services of Florida (Lee County) and One More Child (Lee, Charlotte, Collier and Hendry/Glades counties). At the time of this writing, there are 425 children in foster care in Lee County, 107 in Collier, 135 in Charlotte, 24 in Hendry, and eight in Glades.
Children end up in foster care for varying reasons. The Department of Children and Families (DCF) receives the calls and investigates the situation to determine if the child or children can be maintained in the home safely. If not, the agency looks to potential relatives/non-relatives who could provide a safe environment. If none are available, then the children are placed into foster care.
“The common core issues of our families are drug abuse, untreated mental health issues and
Once a child leaves the foster home the relationship with the foster parents doesn’t always end.
“The common core issues of our families are drug abuse, untreated mental health issues and domestic violence.” —Lori Feige, director of licensing at the Children’s Network of Southwest Florida.
domestic violence,” explains Lori Feige, director of licensing at the Children’s Network of Southwest Florida.
The main goal of fostering is to provide children with a safe, stable and loving home until they can be reunited with their biological family. For some children, however, this is not an option, and adoption becomes a possibility. In 2018, 195 Southwest Florida foster children were adopted through the fostering program.
“Our families do get attached to the children, and we ask families to treat foster children as they would their own children,” says Feige, who adds that the organization encourages families to develop relationships with the biological parents and act as mentors to them.
In her role as a foster parent, Dennis has taken this to heart. Not only does she find being a foster parent very rewarding, but also, she says, “I have grown a passion for working with the whole biological family.”
“Our families do get attached to the children, and we ask families to treat foster children as they would their own children.” —Lori Feige
Foster parents receive a monthly stipend to assist with costs, as well as Medicaid for the children to cover medical and dental expenses. “The foster families also receive support and assistance from the case managers assigned to the children and from their licensing agency,” says Feige.
Once a child leaves the foster home the relationship with the foster parents doesn’t always end. The Dennis family still has contact with many of the children who were temporarily in their home.
“The impact fostering has on your life lasts a lifetime,” says Dennis.
Christina and Rob Dennis and their family. The Dennises have been foster parents for more than 10 years and have adopted children through the foster-care system.
Five live sessions and four online clusters of training sessions are part of the requirements for becoming a foster parent.
The Children’s Network of Southwest Florida holds regular information meetings about how to become a foster or adoptive parent.
The Gimello family from Cape Coral has fostered and adopted children.