ON THE RADAR

Need for foster par­ents in Southwest Florida has never been greater

RSWLiving - - DEPARTMENT­S - BY ANN MARIE O’PHEL AN

Fos­ter­ing Hope

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.

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