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Tri-County children often leave county for foster care

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By Sean Arnold

The overwhelming majority of children in Levy, Dixie and Gilchrist County who enter foster care have to leave the Tri-County area.

That was a major takeaway from a talk last Thursday by Michelle Giordano, the foster care recruitment specialist for Partnership for Strong Families, at a meeting of the Suwannee Valley Rotary Club in Chiefland.

Giordano reported that there are 31 children from the Tri-County area currently in licensed foster care homes; 87 percent of those children are living outside the county they're originally from.

“A majority of your youth going to foster homes are separated from their schools, friends and families due to the lack of foster homes in the Tri-County Area,” Giordano said. "That’s a huge problem. If you think about one of your kids being forced out of their home because they experienced trauma, and then, after living in this county all their lives, they’re being placed in Jacksonville, going to bigger schools – that’s another trauma that our kids have been experiencing, because we don’t have enough foster homes in these three counties to take care of them.

“We want that 87 percent to come down so they can stay in their communities and even have that relationship with mom and dad if it’s positive.”

Giordano said the Partnership for Strong Families has around 200 cases open for children in the Tri-County area, including the 31 children under licensed foster care, and 150 of those have been removed from their parents. The organization partners with the Florida Department of Children and Families (DCF), as it takes over cases after DCF has determined whether or not a child is safe in his or her home when a report is made. It serves 13 counties and around 1,200 children.

Giordano says Partnership for Strong Families advocates on three fronts – foster care, adoption and prevention. It partners with the Tri-County Community Resource Center in Chiefland to help on the prevention end.

“We’ve seen a huge success rate on the prevention side,” Giordano said. “We want to prevent these kids from coming into care, and the Tri-County Community Resource Center is helping with that. The goal is to help before a parent gets frustrated to the point of wanting to hurt their child – they’re coming into the resource center to seek out counseling. Or maybe they’re frustrated because they can’t get a job; that center is there to help them get a job.”

Giordano said her organization is always seeking prospective parents to adopt children in foster care, giving them permanent families. She said the biological parents lose their rights when the children are adopted, so they can’t take the children back.

More of the children up for adoption tend to be older.

“The majority of kids in our care up for adoption are over 10 years old,” she said. “So we have a huge need for adoptive parents of teens. You’ll see the little ones get adopted more easily by family members or by foster families they’re living with.”

In some cases, children spend just a couple weeks in foster care, until a relative or friend of the family, such as the grandparents, are deemed safe to take over custody.

Giordano was introduced by Suwannee Valley Rotary Club member Paul Worthington, who revealed he was raised as a foster child.

“Between the ages 4 and 10, I was in foster care in five different homes,” he said. “I finally arrived at a little farm of an older couple at 10, where I stayed through high school. I was never adopted, but I consider those people my parents, and my kids call them their grandparents.

“All of the experiences I had in all of those homes I was raised in were all positive.”

Foster parents are required to take a class and become licensed and have their home vouched for. Giordano said space in the home, setting boundaries – including locking up medicines – and adequate income are key factors in authorizing foster parents. Foster parents receive some financial reimbursement for boarding.

“We tell people the fostering process is extremely invasive because we want to know who is taking care of these kids because we’re in charge of them,” Giordano said. “But you get to change the trajectory of the child’s future. I think of Paul (Worthington) – would he be sitting in here today if not for the positive experience with foster families? I always like to think what the future would look like for a child if I had not brought them into my home. Would they be able to give back to the community and make a positive influence?”

Giordano asks people to be advocates for foster children in whatever way they can, whether it’s reporting to DCF problems in a home for a child or advising potential foster parents to reach out to the Partnership for Strong Families.

“I really believe that the way we can solve this crisis going on is by the community coming together,” she said. “It may not be you becoming a foster parent, because I don’t truly believe that every person is fit to be a foster parent.

“They’re in school with your kids, playing on the playground with your kids. While we do the best to help them blend in at school, we often can’t do it without the support from you guys. So when you’re talking to friends or family, it’s just a simple, ‘Hey, call this Michelle lady. If you know someone that loves babysitting, they can babysit for foster parents.”

Giordano can be reached at (352) 244-1684 or at michelle.giordano@pfsf.org.