ORLANDO — It wouldn't have been surprising if India Marrero had turned her back on the Department of Children and Families once she turned 18 and could finally walk away from the foster care system.
She was 11 when she and her younger sister were taken from an abusive home. Two years later, the DCF found a former child protection caseworker to adopt them. But the woman turned out to be physically and mentally abusive.
She tried to get help, but was told to try to make things work. She eventually ran away. She went back to her mother's home, then to a shelter, then a foster home and then a DCF group home.
But instead of putting the DCF in her past when she aged out, she is working for the agency as part of a program to hire young adults who have recently left the foster care system. The goal of the program — the only one like it in the country — is to help former foster children get jobs and to have DCF employees learn from their experiences.
More than 100 have been hired by the agency and its contracted community providers, typically receiving $7 to $13.50 an hour.
Many of the new DCF employees are still in the department's Road to Independence Program, which helps them transition out of the system. Like Marrero, 19, many never envisioned themselves working for the agency.
"I'm very surprised," said Octavis, a 23-year-old woman who didn't want her last name published. With a laugh, she adds, "I remember when they used to say, 'I can't wait till you turn 18 and get out of the system.' "
She's found that some of the agency workers she knew as a troubled foster child take her seriously and listen — something that wasn't always the case a few years ago.
A common thread among many in the program is the desire to start a career helping children. Derrick Riggins, 23, is seeking a master's in social work while processing food stamp, Medicaid and temporary assistance applications for the DCF. He eventually wants to work with teenagers in foster care.