On any given day, approximately 2,300 children are living in the tri-county area’s foster care system. From newborn babies to teenagers awaiting high school graduation, they arrive in care at all ages and from all family situations through no fault of their own. But they have one thing in common: They all need and deserve a loving home.
At Embrace Families, our job is to make sure they get one. As soon as a child is removed from an unsafe home situation by the Department of Children and Families, our team works alongside caseworkers, parents, counselors and the judicial system to resolve their case within 12 months. In other words: Get kids out of foster care and into a permanent home where they will be safe and cared for.
In the best-case scenario, we’re working alongside parents to help them reunify with their children. Case managers work hard to ensure parents have access to all the community services they need, such as housing assistance or substance abuse treatment, to get back on their feet.
Reunification isn’t always possible, however. Sometimes parents don’t engage. Sometimes they disappear completely. Sometimes they fight as hard as they can to be with their kids, but they deal with setbacks that will take a long time to overcome. In those cases, we look at other options that will get kids out of foster care “limbo,” specifically trying to place them with a family member or close family friend.
Throughout all of this, there’s one key factor I haven’t mentioned: foster homes. From the moment a kid enters care, we rely on our licensed foster caregivers, who open their doors to provide caring home environments for children in need.
Most kids who enter foster care feel lost, isolated and unwanted. Some have lived with abuse or neglect, and all of them are struggling with the trauma of being separated from their families. Being welcomed into a family — be it a forever home or a temporary foster placement — is about much more than having a roof over their head. It’s about acceptance and stability when the rest of their life is in crisis.
And while foster kids deal with more challenges than most, they are, first and foremost, kids. They want to do the same things as everybody else — come home from school and eat dinner with their family, hang out with friends and join after-school clubs. They want to have a “normal” life … just like their peers.
But as critical as foster homes are, they’re in seriously short supply for some of our youth — older teens, sibling groups, children with special medical needs. There’s so little elasticity in the system that we often struggle to find homes for the kids who experience some of the greatest challenges.
It’s not easy to open your heart and home to a child knowing you’ll one day have to say goodbye. But the reward of helping kids heal, of seeing families grow stronger together, is worth it. If you’ve ever thought about becoming a foster caregiver, I encourage you to learn more about the process by visiting www.EmbraceFamilies.org.
But even if fostering isn’t an option for you, you can still make a difference by volunteering, mentoring, donating or simply advocating. Our team is here to help every step of the way — so that no one is left alone.
Nikki Riggsbee is executive director of West Orange County for Embrace Families, the lead nonprofit agency overseeing child welfare services in Orange, Osceola and Seminole counties.