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Salvation Army plans permanent foster care

By DAVID BALLINGRUD

© St. Petersburg Times, published April 12, 2000


When there's trouble between a foster child and foster parents, when things just aren't going to work out, there can be only one outcome.

The child must pack what little he or she owns -- "sometimes into just a trash bag," says Karen Braun -- and leave.

The destination? Probably another foster home, and a future even more uncertain than the one just left behind: new family, new surroundings, new school, new friends, more struggling to fit in. Predictably, the child's prospects for adoption, or even for placement in another foster home, decline.

"This must change," said Braun, of the St. Petersburg Salvation Army.

Now, for some children, perhaps it will.

The Salvation Army of St. Petersburg is about to spend $5-million to give some of these children a break in a place called Children's Village.

Children's Village will place foster kids with foster parents in the traditional way, but with an important twist: If the relationship can't be made to work, the foster parent leaves. The child stays.

"If it doesn't work out, the child goes to sleep that night not fearing a total change in their life the next day," Braun said.

When built at a planned site on Ninth Ave. N in St. Petersburg, Children's Village will be a cluster of seven homes, each run by invited foster parents, each containing six children. Additional buildings on the grounds will house five or six Salvation Army support personnel, and a transition facility for kids about to leave the village.

"The key is permanency," Braun said. "We won't ask the child to leave unless there is opportunity for adoption or reunification with family. This is home."

Children's Village will target some of the kids who could most use a break in life: those most likely not to be adopted or returned to family members, and siblings who should stay together.

Often these hard-to-place kids have been abused or abandoned, she said.

For these children, "stability is crucial," Braun said. "I've seen the effects of no stability on the faces of kids. In the first year, they do pretty well. In year two, there's some resentment over all the uncertainty. By the third year, they are angry and are developing problems."

The state's Department of Children and Families has encouraged Children's Village and will support it, said spokeswoman Elaine Fulton-Jones.

"There's a place for this kind of facility," she said. "It can't take the place of traditional foster care; nothing can replace that. But it meets a need. We have about 150 kids in Pinellas and Pasco counties that would fit that hard-to-adopt role right now."

The $5-million the Salvation Army has ready to spend on land acquisition and construction is just a fraction of what will be needed.

Over the next four years, Braun said, the Salvation Army will try to build a $20-million endowment. The interest generated by that sum would go to Children's Village operating expenses.

While the $20-million is being raised, the village will need money to operate. For that, the Salvation Army has gone to the Legislature.

With the help of members of the Pinellas delegation, the Salvation Army hopes to obtain $100,000 for the fiscal year beginning July 1, and a commitment for $1-million for each of the next three years, said Capt. Mark Israel, area commander.

And if the Legislature doesn't come up with the money?

"We haven't entertained that thought," Israel said. "I believe we have support; I believe we will be in the budget. And if somehow we didn't get the money, I believe we would still find a way to build it."

Meanwhile, the Salvation Army is moving ahead with its money. It recently signed a contract to purchase a 4.5-acre parcel in the 3900 block of Ninth Avenue N in St. Petersburg.

The land is west of Salvation Army offices at 3800 Ninth Ave. N, and is occupied by a mobile home park, Israel said. Purchase is contingent on rezoning to allow construction of Children's Village.

"There are some things to work out," he said, "but we hope to have the first kids on campus within a year." He would not disclose the purchase price.

Ideally, he said, the Children's Village concept will catch on elsewhere. "We're building a model. We hope it will be copied in other parts of the state."

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