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Company helps find new foster parents

A private, nonprofit company called Open Door is joining the Department of Children and Families in recruiting and developing new foster homes.

By JIM ROSS, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published April 7, 2002


With foster homes in short supply, the Department of Children and Families is working with a private company to help recruit, train and support prospective foster parents.

The company, Open Door Social Services of Florida, is trying to develop enough new foster homes to serve 40 children in DCF District 13, which covers Citrus, Hernando, Marion, Lake and Sumter counties.

Open Door has found places for 31 children, according to David Carter, the company's senior executive director. Those beds are in Marion County, and a few other beds are scheduled to become available soon in Lake and Sumter, Carter said.

That doesn't mean Open Door has forgotten Citrus and Hernando.

"We're looking to recruit foster parents there," Carter said during an interview last week. "We've done some advertising in the past. We're doing more. This is a stepped-up effort."

The need for new foster homes is less severe in Citrus compared with other Florida counties. Citrus has 102 licensed beds and 54 foster kids occupying them, according to the latest department statistics.

The situation isn't as promising in Hernando, which has 71 licensed beds and 88 foster children. That means 14 Hernando children are in out-of-county foster homes, and three are in Hernando homes that have been allowed to exceed the number of beds they are allowed to provide, the department reported.

No matter the numbers, all District 13 counties always need more foster homes, according to Jeanie Kittel, a top DCF official.

Why? Because some foster homes are better than others at handling certain types of kids: adolescents, for example, or young children who have severe behavior problems. Only a small number of homes will care for infants.

Plus, if there aren't enough foster homes available in the child's home county, the department will place children from those areas elsewhere, such as Citrus, Kittel said.

Until recently, DCF handled foster care on its own. But in the past year or so, the department recognized it needed help and joined forces with Open Door, a private, nonprofit concern that formed 20 years ago in Pennsylvania but now keeps its corporate offices in Orlando.

Kittel said other DCF districts have forged similar relationships with outside service providers.

The company's latest six-month contract ends June 30. The department recently reviewed Open Door's performance and issued a healthy report card, except for some paperwork problems, DCF records showed.

"They've worked real hard on advertising, getting the word out," Kittel said. "I would say that we're pleased with our relationship with them."

Why would prospective foster parents prefer to work with Open Door instead of the department?

"One of the things they look at is support. Our caseloads are lower than the department's, so the case worker can be in the home" more, Carter said.

He understands the importance of supporting foster parents, having worked for DCF seven years in Tampa as a protective investigator, foster care supervisor and investigations supervisor. He said other company employees also are trained and dedicated child welfare professionals.

Carter said prospective foster parents, including former volunteers considering a return to service, cite another reason for being reluctant to work with the department: They know DCF has a mandate to eventually shift many of its duties, including foster care, completely to the private sector.

"Private agencies have a future," Carter said.

Kittel said the department's partnership with Open Door isn't part of the move to privatization, or community-based care, as the department likes to call it.

A shift to community-based care is different. It calls for the department to completely give up part of its workload and hire someone else to handle it.

That's what District 13 did last year when it tapped Central Baptist Family Services to oversee adoptions and work with at-risk families.

With Open Door, the department didn't stop its work at all. It just brought in reinforcements.

"It's to supplement what they're doing," Carter said.

Money might be another reason prospective foster parents prefer working with Open Door.

DCF's current contract with Open Door calls for the private company to receive up to $336,660 between Jan. 1 and June 30, records showed. The department gives the company $46.50 per day per child, $20 of which goes to the foster parents to cover expenses related to the child.

In other words, if an Open Door foster parent houses an infant for 30 days, the parent would receive $600 to cover the child's costs.

The same parent working under the department's supervision would receive a $369 monthly allowance, the records showed. DCF provides greater allowances for older children; the top amount is $473 per month for each teen housed in a teen group home.

Carter said his company, with smaller caseloads, can afford to provide more money and time to the foster parents than the department can.

But "I don't want them (foster parents) motivated by the money factor," he said.

That doesn't just go for new foster parents; it also applies to current foster parents who might contemplate a switch from department supervision to Open Door.

"The effort is not to attract foster parents from the department because that does not meet the need of providing" new beds, Carter said.

DCF still licenses all foster homes, even those that Open Door recruits and supports, Kittel said.

DCF's decision to work with a private partner intrigues Barbara Hill, 62, president of the Citrus County Foster Parent Association.

"I hope it works, that's all I can tell you," she said last week.

Mrs. Hill has opened her Inverness home to foster children the past four years; she currently is caring for four teenagers. A former day care center owner and court-appointed advocate, Mrs. Hill has dedicated a good part of her life to helping young people.

She said many foster parents withdrew services because they had a bad experience with a child or children. Some might welcome a chance to work with Open Door, which has a smaller caseload and thus more opportunity than DCF to mentor foster parents.

The financial aspect might help, as well.

"What we get paid is not even enough to support the child we get," Mrs. Hill said.

Carter said foster parents are needed, regardless whether they choose to work with Open Door or directly with the department. Even if people don't wish to become full-time foster parents, the department and Open Door need foster parents who can take children for a short time so full-time parents can take a break.

"We're looking for people who have a love for children and are willing to make a commitment," he said.

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