It's all too fitting and tragic that during the month of April, which is Child Abuse Prevention Month, a recent news story on NBC 2 out of Southwest Florida highlighted an alarming situation struggling local families were already far too familiar with: the rise of children in foster care.
Citing new statistics, NBC reports that more than 2,300 children in Southwest Florida are now in the foster care system, a 17 percent increase in just the last five months. That’s 331 children since last November that have been removed from their homes and placed in an already overburdened system.
Nadereh Salim, CEO of the Children's Network of Southwest Florida said that “these are unprecedented numbers for us.” With only 329 officially approved foster homes in all of Southwest Florida, the system is at the breaking point.
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Recognizing its limitations, the Florida Department of Children and Families has begun reaching out to local non-profits for assistance, a new private partnership has emerged. According to Megan Rose, the director of Safe Families for Children Southwest Florida, the start-up of their chapter has provided an alternative for lower risk cases.
The local non-profit reports since inception last year, 46 of the 154 children served by SFFC have been referrals from DCF. For this privately funded charity, the demand has been not only confirmation of the need, but it's also been a rallying cry for much needed support from churches, volunteer families, and donors.
"Since we launched last year, we have seen such a tremendous need in our community and the numbers continue to show us that we are just only scratching the surface," Rose said.
Many of the families served by SFFC lack a healthy network of friends, family members or neighbors to lean on. These are the roles SFFC volunteers fill to help struggling parents and provide wrap-around support during times of crisis, alleviating the strain and reducing the harmful situations that can lead to abuse and neglect. Parents choose to seek help out of love for their child and oftentimes it can lessen the fears of having their children permanently removed from their care.
When intervention by DCF is necessary and options outside the primary family must be secured, SFFC works alongside the agency to provide a safe home temporarily for the children while other relatives can be contacted and arrangements can be made. Rose shared with me about one particular case of a mother who was abusing drugs and already had her children removed. Instead of the state immediately putting the children into the foster care system, likely separating them, DCF contacted SFFC of SWFL. A volunteer host family took in the children while their father could be contacted and flown in from out of state to assume permanent custody.
Siblings were kept together, a father was united with his children, and the already strained foster care system wasn't further burdened with a case that could be served by local charity.
"Our volunteers are providing an outlet of support for parents who are under stress by providing short term care for their children without the fear of losing their parental rights. By supporting the whole family, SFFC enables parents to really address the issues that they are facing, whether is homelessness, substance abuse or a medical emergency, our volunteers are connecting them with community resources they need to solve their problems," Rose said.
According to Salim, the three primary causes of the increase in foster care cases are due to substance abuse, domestic violence, and people struggling with mental health issues. This aligns with the cases also being supported by the SFFC volunteers.
By taking a proactive approach through private charity, not only is SFFC saving taxpayers significant sums of money, as much as $12,000 per child per year, the outcomes for kids are greatly improved as well. On average, a child served through SFFC of SWFL spends 42 days with a host family, compared to 248 days in Florida foster care, and more than 92 percent of children are reunified with their parents, compared to 46 percent of children in the Florida system.
“There are so many children needing homes and there are just not enough homes out there," Christina Dennis, a Florida foster parent, said.
This is true, but the government program shouldn't be the only solution, especially for people of faith.
As Christians we're called to love one another and bear each other's burdens, and it's clear Safe Families for Children of Southwest Florida is doing exactly that. They're filling a critical need by providing a safe home for kids in crisis, loving the parents through trying times and practicing Biblical hospitality.
This is a proven private charity alternative with promising outcomes for kids. Their work will no doubt benefit families and the local communities they serve for years to come.
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