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Reconfiguring foster care


© St. Petersburg Times, published March 4, 2001

[Times photo: Douglas Clifford]
Pam Gary holds one of her foster children recently as seven other foster kids surround her.
Starting today, the Times chronicles the impact of the privatization of foster care in Pasco County through the experiences of the Gary family.

* * *

The yellow sign at the end of the Garys' street says "Rough Road."

It's appropriate.

Each of their eight foster children hit pothole after pothole on the way here. They came from damaged Pasco County families.

One lived in six foster homes in the first six months of her life.

A second had four state case workers before he turned 1.

Another's parents locked him in a freezer and stuffed him between a mattress and the box spring.

Another's mom is in prison. The girl was shipped off to her relatives after a year here. They sent her back in six weeks.

These kids have landed in this house where cute meets tragic in the woods north of Dade City. They all call Pam Gary "Mom."

"You just don't understand how political their little lives are," Gary said.

For lives marked by change, more is on the way. It started Thursday for Pasco.

The state is getting out of the business of providing local hands-on social work. Pasco is a testing ground.

"We're putting Humpty Dumpty up on a wall and saying, "Sit there and see if you make it,' " said Suzanne Stevens, president of the Florida Foster Parents Association.

Services traditionally provided by the state -- largely foster care, the adoption of troubled children and removal of children from abusive homes -- will now be done mostly by local agencies.

The majority of Pasco's services are being taken over by the same agency, St. Petersburg-based Family Continuity Program, that just completed the takeover in Pinellas. The only service Family Continuity is not taking over, child abuse investigations, already has been transferred locally to the Pasco County Sheriff's Office.

Manatee was the first county to complete the entire changeover, state officials said. Pinellas was second. Pasco will be third.

The state's withdrawal from providing such services in Pasco is scheduled to be completed by April 5.

No one knows what to expect, but agencies across the country -- national groups for children and other states included -- are watching intently. If so-called community-based care succeeds here, it could gain momentum throughout the country.

"It can't -- do I dare say it? -- it can't get any worse," said Pam Gary, 35, president of Pasco County Foster Parent Association.

She will also be watching. And the Times will chronicle the grand experiment's results through her attempts to adopt three of the foster kids, meetings with new case workers and rides in the family's 15-passenger van.

Aside from the eight foster kids, the Garys raise two children from Pam's first two marriages, five dogs, four horses, two calves, two cats, a chicken and a peahen. That doesn't count their farm across the Withlacoochee River or Mike Gary's grown children.

The foster kids range in age from 1 to 17. The oldest is the mother of the youngest.

The Gary's home is just one of 104 such homes in Pasco. Their kids are just eight of 199 Pasco kids gearing up for the change.

'These things aren't planned'

One Thursday in February, Pam Gary was at Winn-Dixie when she got a call from the state.

A 14-year-old girl needed a temporary home.

Gary picked up the girl at the Department of Children and Families in Dade City. She brought her home with the groceries.

Just a few months earlier, Mike Gary took a call in the middle of the night. When Pam Gary woke up the next morning, there was another child in her house.

"That's part of being a foster parent," she said. "These things aren't planned."

Family Continuity wants to live up to its name, providing more continuity in these children's lives, executive director Jeff Richard said.

Two major concerns raised by foster care advocates are Family Continuity's ability to learn a new job and its ability to stay within the same budget allotted to the much-maligned DCF. As large and clunky as the DCF can be, critics said, it does have stability.

Those concerns will ease over time, a Family Continuity spokeswoman said.

The agency intends to seek change, which will be slow in coming, largely through a new emphasis on community involvement, a restructuring of the casework and increased communication with foster parents.

Richard said he wants to create more partnerships with businesses, other non-profits and community groups, partly because that will allow his agency to raise additional funding the state could never access.

"Everybody needs to be pulled into this," Richard said, "and take some responsibility and ownership.'

For example, Family Continuity can solicit private businesses to donate items such as backpacks or clothing, spokeswoman Elaine Fulton-Jones said.

Family Continuity will have a 75-person Pasco staff, including subcontracted employees, she said. Because of the different systems of organization, there is no way to compare Family Continuity's staff to the state's, but state officials said they expect Family Continuity's to be larger.

It is adding new positions to help the system, ranging from a placement-focused foster family advocate to counselors and coordinators dealing specifically with teenage foster children issues.

And about 50 percent of the Family Continuity staff will come from the state, Fulton-Jones said. It also will have the same training requirements.

"The learning curve is not what people think it might be," she said.

Family Continuity's five-year contract with the state will pay the agency $112-million for Pinellas and Pasco. Besides raising additional outside funding, Richard said his agency can operate more efficiently.

The agency will assign each foster child a caseworker to handle all aspects of that child's case, Richard said. Under the state's structure, different workers deal with different aspects of a child's case.

Its less rigid rules will allow parents to more easily access what their kids need, whether it is counseling services or a new jacket, Fulton-Jones said.

"You have to really fight for your kids now to get their needs met," Pam Gary said.

The lifestyle of a foster parent breeds skepticism, but Gary said she has been mostly pleased by preparation efforts for the changeover.

She sits on Family Continuity's Quality Improvement Council, a group that assesses the agency. Communication has been better with Family Continuity, she said, than with the behemoth state agency.

At a Nov. 14 Pasco Foster Parent Association meeting, Tracy Stodart of Family Continuity was trying to figure out the easiest way to structure programs for teenage foster children.

"How would that work best?" she asked the parents.

Some of them responded with an astonished look.

No one, they said, had ever asked their opinion.

Good comes with the bad

"Okay," Pam Gary said one night. "I'm going to sit down and eat now. If the house falls down, oh well."

Around here, that passes for saying grace.

The family's six-bedroom, three-bathroom -- one bathroom has a tub that holds four -- house is home to a 1-year-old boy; three 2-year-old girls; a 3-year-old boy; an 8-year-old boy; Pam's 12-year-old daughter, Hilary Allen; her 14-year-old daughter, Sarah Wascak; a 14-year-old girl; and a 17-year-old girl, the mother of the 1-year-old boy.

The Garys get roughly $2,500 a month to care for the kids, Pam Gary said. When doing their taxes, they discovered it doesn't cover even half the cost. They spend $1,600 a month on groceries alone.

"If you could bottle their energy and sell it, we'd be rich," Mike Gary said.

Crises, like colds and coughs, appear contagious.

One 2-year-old girl, who has kinky blond hair, throws her hands on her hips when she doesn't get her way. She also loves to hug legs.

Another 2-year-old's favorite phrase, much to her mom's chagrin, is "shut up." She learned it from a country music song.

The 3-year-old boy used his sisters' cuteness as a distraction to grab extra candy from unsuspecting chocolate-givers on Halloween. He's usually smiling.

Good comes with the bad and vice versa. Four of the five school-age children, including Pam's birth kids, made honor roll last semester. The girl whom Pam Gary picked up on the way home from the grocery store was arrested for stealing Mike Gary's beeper and cellular phone. She left the house five days later in handcuffs.

"They're going to see how a real family interacts," Pam Gary said. "And notice I'm not saying normal."

Mike Gary, 61, who owns A-1-A Heating and Air in St. Petersburg, is the foster father, stepfather and easy-going shrug in this family.

He's known to spoil the kids if it gets the job done: sprinkling sugar on cereal that would otherwise go uneaten or offering candy to lure out hiding children who need diaper changes.

Mike, who ran a foster group home in St. Petersburg for nearly 20 years, knew his wife would get attached to the kids.

Growing up in the suburbs of Cleveland, Pam would bring home stray dogs and cats, and birds that fell from nests. Her mom told her she was going to fill her house with the strays.

"She just never knew it would include kids," Gary said.

Since her first foster child in fall 1997, about 30 kids have passed through the house, some for as little as a night. The most at one time was 11 in February.

Pam Gary has three full-time jobs: mom, environmental consultant and student.

She is taking two classes at the University of South Florida in pursuit of an environmental science and policy degree and works at Delta Seven Inc. in Dade City. She often makes two appearances a week in court for her kids.

And she and her husband run a shuttle service of sorts.

Including the birth children, the kids attend four schools and did attend three day care facilities until last week. She pulled them out to deal with toilet training problems and has been working from home until she finds a babysitter.

Less than three years after moving into their house, the green carpet needs to be replaced.

A good day is when one of the 2-year-old girls drops her milk cup -- and it lands right side up.

But spilled milk isn't even a bump in the road.

The mother who had one of the Gary's children at age 14 had another baby last fall. The mother who had two other Gary children with different fathers is pregnant by a third.

"The thing that needs to be changed is society and the way people are raising their children," Pam Gary said, "and there is nobody who can change that.

"I'd love to see it all work. I'd love to see no kids fall through the cracks, but in reality there are just too many externalities."

- Ryan Davis covers higher education and social services in Pasco. He can be reached by phone at (800) 333-7505, ext. 3452, or by e-mail at

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