Manatee County is mired in a child welfare crisis caused by kids being taken from their homes because of their parents’ heroin addictions, and 200 people met to talk about it in a gymnasium in a part of town where many of the child-sheltering cases have occurred.
Many solutions for the problem were suggested during the town hall meeting at the 13th Av Dream Center in Bradenton on Tuesday night.
“My heart breaks because there are 400 churches in this town,” said Pastor Jerry Parrish, a street minister, in offering one solution. “It’s embarrassing. The churches need to get off their butts, get out of their four walls and care for these kids. We have got to take care of these kids. If everyone in a church took a child, we would not have any kids hurting.”
Brena Slater of the Sarasota YMCA Safe Children’s Coalition told the audience that Manatee County has averaged 57 children removed from their homes for each of the past six months, putting Manatee currently at 291 sheltered children for the year, which is roughly three times higher than the state average.
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The statistics on child sheltering in Manatee go hand in hand with the statistics Slater presented on heroin and fentanyl overdose deaths in Manatee, which are the highest of any county in the state, Slater said.
In July, Manatee County paramedics administered 456 doses of naloxone or Narcan to save people who have overdosed, which shows the gravity of the local problem, Slater said.
Manatee’s 911 system is averaging 450 to 500 calls per month regarding children in danger, Slater said.
Although the Safe Children’s Coalition is working to try to unify families that have been torn apart, kids are coming into the system faster than they can be placed in homes, Slater said.
Longtime child advocate Ed Dick’s solution is government help.
“I don’t believe in big government, but sometimes a problem gets so big that we need government, and that is the case right now,” Dick said.
“We need the government to provide foster homes for children,” Dick added.
Bobbie Price of Guardian Angels of Southwest Florida, which has built three large homes for 18 children in Manatee, said her solution would be to see more Manatee residents volunteer to be foster parents and more financial help so her organization and others can build more homes.
“I think we all have been made aware of the tremendous need for foster care in Manatee County,” Price said. “So, what I would like to see is some people begin to accept the responsibility of being foster parents, being trained and encouraged.”
Connie Keehner of the Manatee County Sheriff’s Office challenged the crowd to get involved. She told about David Brown, chief of the Dallas Police Department, who admitted to the public he needed their help to solve problems. Keehner suggested Brown’s philosophy could be repeated in Manatee.
“Get involved with the kids on your block,” Keehner said. “I challenge you to join us.”
When Slater and Keehner asked for comments from the audience, they received some tough feedback.
Two people asked why foster parents can’t get more information on the children they are getting. One audience member asked why a parent who has had a baby removed can keep the baby she has just had. One person asked why cases are tied up in court so long, and one audience member asked if it were possible that some children were being removed unnecessarily.
Slater and Keehner kept their composure as they explained that there is always a hope that parents can change, which is why a mother who had a child removed will not automatically lose her newborn, but Keehner was passionate when answering the question about inappropriate child removal.
“No!” Keehner said, remarking that when outside agencies have reviewed Manatee’s cases they can’t believe how severe they are.