By Jessica Creagan
TREASURE COAST -- "Home" is one of those words that bring to the surface different memories, images, and even emotions for different people, but some common feelings that "home" gives most people is comfort and security.
For some children, that comfort and security of home isn't possible due to severe issues in the household, and they are removed from their homes, but instead of finding a temporary shelter in their own town, they are taken to a different part of the state.
Bob McPartlan, community development administrator for the Department of Children and Families in Circuit 19, which covers Indian River, St. Lucie, Martin and Okeechobee counties, said the region is in desperate need of more foster homes for local children.
There are only about 90 foster homes in the four-county area and recently some children in need of housing were sent all the way to Jacksonville because there were no places for them locally, Mr. McPartlan said.
"There was no alternative. We had to take them away from not only their home, their parents, but their school and their friends," he said.
Mr. McPartlan couldn't provide the specific number of children that are currently housed in the area, or how many have been sent out-of-area, but encouraged Treasure Coast residents to start thinking about opening their homes and hearts to the children in order to keep them closer to their schools, friends and family.
Whenever possible, DCF looks to take a child out of their dangerous home and place them with a relative or local friend, provided they can pass a background check and their home is safe for the child, Mr. McPartlan said.
Not only that, but if there are multiple siblings, the best thing to do is keep them all together, and unfortunately, there aren't always foster homes that can handle sibling units, he said.
"It's already a traumatic experience for a child. Another sad aspect is the children, even if they're abused or been neglected, they still love their parents. To separate them from their siblings is even more traumatic. And if they have to go out of area, that makes visitation even harder," Mr. McPartlan said.
He said his goal is always to reunite the child and parent, as long as the environment is healthy and not harmful to the child.
Foster homes can make a huge difference in a child's life during their separation from their parents.
"You always hear about the bad in everything, but the overwhelming majority of people who foster do it because they have a love for children," Mr. McPartlan said.
Some foster parents even take their role a step further and work to mentor the child's parents and help them stay on track with a court-ordered program to get their child back, he said.
Agencies constantly have to recruit for new foster homes because homes may reach capacity for foster children, foster parents may have more biological children, or choose to adopt a foster child and have less space for another to come in, Mr. McPartlan said.
"I'd love for us to have more foster homes than we do foster children," he said.
Prospective foster parent orientations by Camelot Community Care, the licensing agency for Circuit 19, are held the third Thursday of every month at 10 a.m. and 6 p.m.
Even if you're not certain fostering is for you, bring a friend to an orientation to find out more of what the foster care system is all about, Mr. McPartlan said.
"It's really important that we keep the conversation about this flowing," he said.
Foster parents are expected to shelter and care for the child in their home, which includes taking them to the doctor if they are sick, staying involved in their schooling and seeing to their emotional needs.
There is a stipend to help cover the child's care, but if anyone thinks it's an easy way to make a profit, they are sadly mistaken, Mr. McPartlan said.
Foster parents are required to complete 30 hours of training, background screenings, a home study and other checks before a child can placed in the home.
About 6,000 child abuse reports are logged annually with DCF in the four-county area, Mr. McPartlan said.
A former child abuse investigator, Mr. McPartlan is all too familiar with responding to a report of child abuse and having to find a new temporary home for one or more children in the household. Fortunately, that isn't the case in most calls, he said.
"Only about five percent of those reports lead to children being removed from the home. About seven percent stay with their parents who do court-ordered services," Mr. McPartlan said.
Another seven percent of the time, case workers and investigators identify a potential, low-risk problem and try to work with the family to ensure the issue doesn't escalate, Mr. McPartlan said.
"I believe the best place for the child is with the parent as long as it's safe," he said.
But sometimes when it is not, having local loving foster homes is a wonderful thing for the children, he said.
Mr. McPartlan said he often acts as an ambassador for DCF to service, civic and church organizations interested in learning more about the foster care program.
"I'm available and you can call me to set up a time to come and talk to your group about the programs," Mr. McPartlan said.
For more information about orientation or foster parent licensing through Camelot Community Care, call (772) 403-8176 Ext. 1030. To contact Mr. McPartlan, call (772) 409-2813.