OKEECHOBEE — On any given day in Okeechobee County, over 130 children are in out-of-home care, and according to Tricia Curl, foster care recruitment and licensing supervisor for Camelot Community Care, Okeechobee County has only four foster homes in which to place them. These four homes have six available beds, and when they are full, the children must be sent either to group homes, shelters or foster homes in Jacksonville or Tampa or wherever they can find a place for them. She explained, when children are removed from their homes, the first choice is always to find a relative or close family friend to place them with. If none are available, they try to find a foster family for them, because whatever happened is not the children’s fault and they need someone to love on them.
“Group care is not a bad thing,” Ms. Curl said. “When a large sibling group comes in, we do not have any foster families capable of housing them, and group care is where we would take them so they can stay together.” The problem with most group care, though, is that it is not a home with a family. It’s more institutional. Camelot Community Care has foster homes in four counties, including Okeechobee, Martin, St. Lucie and Indian River, and there are currently 100 children from those four counties in group care.
The Real Life Children’s Ranch in Okeechobee is considered a group home, but it is unique in that it has housed parents rather than shift workers. They live in homes with those parents, so it is more like foster homes in a group setting.
Sue’s (not her real name) family is one of the four foster families in Okeechobee County. They have been fostering for about three years now, she said. She believes one of the reasons Okeechobee has so few foster families is because people think all the children who are removed from their homes go to The Real Life Children’s Ranch, but this is not true, she said. They can only house so many children and they take children from all over, not just from Okeechobee, she explained. So, even though the ranch is helping a lot of kids, it can’t possibly help them all.
Ms. Curl said in the last year, the biggest problem she has seen is the opioid epidemic. It has led to domestic violence, neglect and abuse, which, of course, leads to more children in the system. Their biggest need right now is homes willing to take school-age children and sibling groups. Every bed they have now is an infant bed, meaning age 3 or younger, and they have nowhere at all for teens. “I think people are afraid of them,” she said. “But they are just kids like any other kids, and they need love, too.” Last week she had three sibling sets of a baby and a 5-year-old, but there was nowhere to take them, and they had to go to group care. “A baby and a 5-year-old should not be that hard to place.”
Sue’s family has had 15 children in the three years they have been fostering. Some have stayed for a few hours and one has been there for 16 months. “You need an open mind and an open heart,” said Sue. “You just have to be willing to love on kids.”
There are three types of foster homes Ms. Curl said. Traditional, which are the ones that house the regular, everyday kids; treatment, which are the ones who house high-end emotional or psychological need; and medical, which house children with special medical needs such as feeding tubes. The treatment or medical foster homes require additional training.
When asked why she became a foster parent, Sue said, “I’m not going to be a doctor and cure cancer, and we aren’t going to design things to clean up all the water in the world, but we can help a family in our community. It’s hard, but anything worth doing is hard.”
Ms. Curl believes many people don’t become foster parents because they fear DCF intruding into their life and their homes, and she said, they do check on the kids. “I’m not going to lie. It’s our job to make sure these kids are safe, but they are not out to get the foster parents. They are on their side. They know that a house full of kids is messy and noisy.” Sue said, “I have had nothing but support from everyone I have come in contact with.”
Both Ms. Curl and Sue believe foster parenting is about not only the child but also the parents of that child. “It’s hard to believe in yourself if no one else believes in you,” said Ms. Curl.
“As a foster parent, you have to ask yourself, ‘How would I want to be treated?’ Some of the children who come to me have parents who were in the same foster care system. We have to break the cycle somehow,” said Sue.
To become a foster parent, just call Ms. Curl at 772-226-6235 and she will talk to you informally first. They require a background screening, and then you take classes. The next class begins on July 13 in St. Lucie County. It takes three and a half Saturdays to complete the 21-hour class. Ms. Curl said she is definitely open to the possibility of classes in Okeechobee in the future if there is enough interest over here. While you go through the classes, there are two home visits from a licensing specialist, and they ask some questions. There are some additional requirements such as purchasing a fire extinguisher and taking a CPR class.
“We need a call to action. These are Okeechobee kids!” said Sue.