TALLAHASSEE, Fla. — Boxed in by some of their own rules and regulations, state child welfare authorities hope to attract 1,200 new foster parents in the next year with a program that allows them more freedom in making decisions for their foster children.
About 5,800 Florida youngsters are in foster homes now with another 2,200 in licensed group homes and nearly 12,000 being cared for by relatives after being removed from their homes.
“We want people who are to commit their lives to make a difference in children,” said David Wilkins, who leads the Department of Children and Families, an often beleaguered state agency tasked with dealing with many of the state’s social ills.
Just last month, four Miami men were charged with operating an underage prostitution ring by luring vulnerable foster girls from a group home into the sex trade with cellphones, clothing and attention they did not get elsewhere.
“They preyed on group home children,” Wilkins said at a Thursday news conference where the agency introduced its “Childhood Only Happens Once” initiative. “That’s logical because our children are more vulnerable than others. So there’s a little bit more risk.”
And another reason for a strong foster parent system in the state.
“Too many children are in group homes and overcrowded foster homes,” added Tanya Wilkins, the wife of the DCF chief and a foster care advocate in her own right.
A big part of the new program will be empowering foster parents by eliminating some of the bureaucracy that makes it as difficult for kids and parents as it does the agency that tries to keep up with monitoring a system taxed with too much regulation.
“Let kids be kids,” Wilkins said.
One of the rules being eliminated is a requirement that a background check be done before foster parents are allowed to let a child in their custody spend the night with a neighbor or friend.
“It’s extremely valuable for them to be social, to have a rich cultural life as well as an education and be able to do it is that they want to as individuals,” said Samantha Rogers, who spent eight years in a foster home and now works at DCF.
“Some of the rules and background checks … should be done away with so that kids can have fun and explore their childhood and spend the night, go to the movies,” Rogers said. “It should be up to the foster parents to parent these children and have an opportunity to really make an impact on their lives.”