Foster care remains a struggle in Manatee County. These people want to help

Meet a Manatee County foster family

Ruben and Jessica Gutierrez live with nine children, eight foster and their biological daughter at a time when Manatee's need for fostering is at an all-time high.
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Ruben and Jessica Gutierrez live with nine children, eight foster and their biological daughter at a time when Manatee's need for fostering is at an all-time high.

Foster care is both important and overwhelming. Parents are often battling with drug addiction, children are being removed from their homes and the community is struggling to find enough housing or money to combat the problem.

In 2017, the Manatee Community Foundation partnered with more than 25 people to discuss the opioid epidemic and the welfare of local children. With support from the Charles and Margery Barancik Foundation, they created a foster care initiative.

The community foundation held a meeting on Wednesday to update childcare leaders on both current victories and struggles in Manatee County. Susie Bowie, the executive director at MCF, started by reviewing historical issues:

  • Working in foster care is stressful and turnover is rampant.
  • Families don’t always receive the support needed to reunite with their children.
  • Facing a similar lack of support, foster parents struggle to meet all of their child’s needs.
  • Most residents are unaware of the positive impact they could have on the child welfare system.
  • While many public and private organizations are working on a solution, they don’t always communicate with each other.
  • There is a shortage of foster homes.
  • The child welfare system is not adequately funded.
  • The system is often rigid and complicated, hindering innovation and creativity.

“I’m sorry to say it, but I think all of these issues are still issues today,” Bowie said. “We didn’t expect that we were going to solve all of these issues, but we expected that by getting together and having some conversations, we could start chipping away at them. That’s exactly what we’ve done.”

The 12th Judicial District — comprised of Manatee, Sarasota and DeSoto counties — has consistently been above the statewide average when it comes to children who are removed from their homes and placed in outside care, according to Wednesday’s presentation.

Nathan Scott, a child welfare policy coordinator with the Florida Department of health; Brena Slater, senior vice president for community based care at the Sarasota Family YMCA; and Kathryn Shea, chief executive officer at The Florida Center. Giuseppe Sabella gsabella@bradenton.com

Though the numbers are starting to drop, Manatee was still No. 3 in the state for removals last year, with 432 children affected. The main reasons are substance abuse, poor supervision and domestic violence, which are often interconnected, said Nathan Scott, a child welfare policy coordinator for the Florida Department of Health.

As one drug starts to subside, another seems to emerge, Scott continued. Between 2015 and 2017, heroin-related deaths were on the decline, while fentanyl and cocaine deaths were among the highest in the state.

Just over 320 children were removed from their Manatee County homes in 2014, a number that grew to 586 the following year.

“As we know, 2015 was also when we started seeing a spike in opioids, especially in Manatee County,” Scott said.

The problem is further complicated by a lack of funding in the child welfare system, and it could get worse with the Sept. 30 expiration of a federal waiver, said Brena Slater, senior vice president for community based care at the Sarasota Family YMCA.

Her organization receives the least funding out of any community-based care agency in the state, according to Wednesday’s presentation. Along with support from the community, she relies on Title IV-E waivers to pay for the cost of relocating a child, or the cost of solving a problem before the child has to be moved.

For example, she said, the money could pay for repairs at someone’s home, fixing unsafe conditions and preventing a disruption to the child’s life. If legislators fail to extend the waiver, Slater and other groups will lose much of their current flexibility, and it would become harder to qualify for the federal money.

“The funding piece of it affects so many parts of our system,” she said. “And the reality is, our kids deserve better.”

The good news is that children are receiving help in Manatee County and the surrounding areas. Between three counties in the 12th Judicial District, there were 208 children adopted last year, while another 235 were returned to their parents, and another 53 found a permanent home with relatives.

And nearly two dozen circuits, including Manatee County, have established an Early Childhood Court, which serves children up to the age of 3 — the largest group for abused children who are removed from their homes, according to the presentation.

The goal is to help them reach permanency, meaning they are reunified with parents or placed with either relatives or non-relatives, said Kathryn Shea, chief executive officer at The Florida Center.

The local court relies on teamwork and communication among different agencies, and on trauma-based care. Instead of focusing solely on a child’s problems, the court places emphasis on what anguish the child has faced, and what can be done to heal his or her trauma.

Children in the court find a stable home several months quicker than other displaced children, Shea said.

“I will do this work even after I’m dead,” she joked. “That’s going to be a really long time, but we are absolutely impacting every generation to come after these children.”