Foster care agency makes progress in caring for SWFL youth

FORT MYERS, Fla. — Paul and Wendy Vernon are no strangers to helping strangers.

“I was a pastor in England and also here,” Paul said. “We’ve always had people with us, always had family with us.”

After living in Cape Coral for years, they saw a need outside the church doors and decided to help by becoming adoptive parents.

“There’s nothing normal about taking care of a child for one, two, three years,” Wendy said, “and then having them leave your house. There is nothing to compare. But it’s still the most wonderful thing to be able to do, to offer that to a child and a family.

Over the past 14 years they have partnered with different Florida agencies. So far, they have taken in 66 children.

They are currently working with the Children’s Network of Southwest Florida. Earlier this year, the agency won a contract from Florida’s Department of Children and Families (DCF). Since July, they have been Hillsborough County’s primary community care agency, in addition to operating in Hendry, Lee, Collier, Charlotte and Glades counties.

“Our organization didn’t actually compete for this contract,” said Nadereh Salim, CEO of Children’s Network, “but the DCF asked us if we would consider coming to Hillsborough County and negotiating this contract.”

A DCF official said children in Hillsborough County will still receive primary care and services closer to home, but Children’s Network will provide supervision and case management assistance. Salim said they had two big goals in the six counties. The first is to bring in and keep more foster parents and caregivers.

“We desperately need foster parents,” Paul said. “There are children arriving every day, and every day there is a child or families arriving.”

SWFL’s Children’s Network serves 1,900 children in five counties. In Hillsborough County, more than 3,200 children are currently in the care of the agency. Each county needs more foster parents to fill this gap as cases get more complicated.

“I also think we’re seeing more and more cases of severe need in our area,” Wendy said. “We now have a larger population than ever. Especially when you have large groups of siblings. A large group of siblings could be eight, nine, ten children.

Salim says the whole system needs more people: foster parents, case managers, guardians, etc. Like many agencies in Florida, they try to entice employees to stay.

“We’ve actually adjusted the salary of our case managers, showing them that we appreciate what they’re doing,” says Salim, “and that’s been a great tool for both recruiting case managers and retaining staff. qualified to take care of our children.

They also plan to use a strategy that has worked in other counties to reduce the number of children in the system. This means providing services to at-risk families before children end up in foster homes.

“At one point we had almost 3,000 children in our own community,” Salim said. “and thanks to our efforts, we have reduced this number to less than 1,900 children. So we hope to do the same there.

The Vernons hope more people will step in for the children who still need a safe place to land.

“People asked us ‘Are you going to quit? When are you going to stop? And we thought, how can you stop when there are still so many kids in care,” Wendy said. “So until we’re physically incapacitated.” I think there are hundreds of reasons to say no to fostering, but there are also hundreds more to say yes to doing so.