By Margie Menzel, The News Service of Florida: TALLAHASSEE - With new legislation reforming Florida foster care, good foster parents will be more in demand than ever. And current foster parents say new ones will have a better experience than the old image of foster care might have led them to expect.
A so-called “normalcy” bill (SB 164) is already in law, giving foster parents more decision-making power when foster children want to take part in activities such as going to the prom or sleeping over at friends’ houses. Senate Bill 1036, which would give young adults the option of staying in foster care until age 21, passed the Legislature overwhelmingly but hasn’t gone to Gov. Rick Scott yet; he’s expected to sign it.
“Now we’re expecting to have teenagers stay in (foster care) longer, and possibly some teens that will re-enter,” said Lora Diaz, a foster and adoptive parent in Pasco County. “So we need more foster homes to be able to take care of this.”
Diaz is also a training coordinator with the Quality Parenting Initiative, which many credit with providing the push the bills needed by changing the perception of foster parents and how they’re treated by caseworkers and administrators.
“QPI has changed the culture of child welfare,” Diaz said.
The initiative is a joint project of the California-based Youth Law Center, the Florida Department of Children and Families, 15 of the state’s community-based care lead agencies and the Eckerd Family Foundation.
It sprang from a crisis in Florida in 2004, when foster homes were in such short supply that special-needs children were sleeping overnight in conference rooms at Big Bend Community Based Care, one of DCF’s lead agencies.
“It was children the shelter had rejected because they had such serious problems,” said Carole Schauffer of the Youth Law Center. “These were the highest-need kids who needed the most supervision.”
So Schauffer and Paolo Annino of the Florida State University College of Law sued DCF and Big Bend Community Based Care. By 2007, the case was settled and Bob Butterworth, who had dealt with the lawsuit while serving as attorney general, had become DCF secretary. He met with Schauffer and Jane Soltis of the Eckerd Family Foundation, agreeing that the need for more foster homes was statewide.
The Quality Parenting Initiative came out of that meeting, based on the idea that foster parenting was a brand with an image both negative and just plain wrong. And it was making it harder to recruit and retain good foster parents.
“People keep saying it’s that foster parents don’t get enough money,” Schauffer said. “But there are so many other things that people do that they don’t get enough money for, and they are lined up to do them.”
The old normal was that foster children couldn’t go on family trips or sleep at a friend’s house without a security check. They couldn’t go to the beach or the prom. Such rules had their basis in liability law, but often damaged the foster child’s relations with the foster parents, especially for those children too young to understand why other kids had privileges they didn’t.
“They want to blame the parent because they don’t see the system,” said Thomas Fair, 23, a former foster youth who now works at Big Bend Community Based Care. “Sometimes they might take it out on that parent or on their group home or, you know, shut down. So that can really mess up that relationship.”
The child welfare authorities were prone to blame the parents, too, if the foster child made a typical mistake — falling out of a tree or wrecking the car.
“A child could be harmed at the beach, yes, and it has happened in the state,” agreed Mike Wakins, CEO of Big Bend Community Based Care. “But we also know those are the kinds of experiences that develop children and allow them to be part of a normal family.”
It cuts both ways. Schauffer said research shows the level of emotional attachment the foster parent feels for the foster child has direct consequences for the child’s ability to learn and succeed.
“If we put those kinds of limitations on, the foster parent is less likely to feel that emotional commitment,” Schauffer said. “And if they don’t feel that emotional commitment, it has a long-term impact on the kid.”
Soltis said brain-development research shows teenagers can still change their learning outcomes — with the right kind of parenting.
“Kids who age out (of foster care) at 18 generally have very poor outcomes,” Soltis said. “But if we listen to the research and provide age-appropriate learning experiences and opportunities for these kids, they can do better than we would have thought.”
John Fair, Thomas’s twin, offers himself as an example. He was troubled in foster care, he said.
“Especially coming from somewhere you can’t trust nobody, don’t have no one caring about you,” he said. “Seeing that difference in that exchange just opens a lot of doors for you as a person and opens yourself up to the world.”
John Fair will spend this summer in Washington, D.C., on a paid internship at the U.S. House of Representatives.
Schauffer praises the new legislation and says DCF and the community based care agencies have been responsive to Quality Parenting Initiative. But she warns the assumptions of the child welfare system are 100 years old, and — like racism — difficult to remove from institutional thinking.
“It’s hard to get people to think foster parents are full and respected partners on the team, not a baby-sitter,” she said