With his buddy, Tampa Bay Rays pitcher James Shields, beside him, 12-year-old Aaron Bender made the pitch Monday for a new state initiative to recruit 1,200 new foster parents, including 200 more in the Tampa Bay area.
On Monday, Shields and David Wilkins, secretary of the Department of Children and Families, each spoke on behalf of the foster care initiative, but it was Aaron's "little speech" that got a standing O.
Aaron has been in foster care for seven years, one of 6,000 area children under state protection. His foster mother, Amy Bartles of Clearwater, called him "the face that goes with that number."
The initiative involves a state rules change that would help Aaron and other kids by giving foster parents more authority over their social and extracurricular activities. It comes at a time when numbers of sheltered children are up 20 percent in Hillsborough County — almost double the rate statewide.
In the past, if Aaron wanted to do a sleepover at a neighbor's house, the state would first subject the neighbors to a background check. From now on, foster parents can give the okay. Similar restrictions on school extracurricular activities also would be relaxed.
The rules change coincides with a stronger emphasis on education support for foster families sponsored by Eckerd Community Alternatives, the new lead child-protection agency in Hillsborough, Pinellas and Pasco counties.
Director Lorita Shirley said Eckerd will now provide guidance counselors to foster children about to graduate. Eckerd also will be meeting with district school officials to raise awareness of their needs.
The state hopes more awareness and less red tape will encourage more families to take in foster kids.
DCF isn't giving foster parents a raise, said Wilkins, but he said such people view their work as a "calling" rather than a job. Most foster parents, he said, learn about the need through previous experience in child protection. "We miss a large part of the population." Eckerd pledges to take the message to community forums.
Three years ago, Shields and the Rays created the Big Game James Club to help foster children learn about baseball. About 50 children are members. They're invited to about a dozen home games each season.
"You adopt somebody," Shields said, "and I'll invite you to a game and buy you some chicken fingers."
Aaron has known James and his wife, Ryann Shields, for all three years. "I spend time with their dog and stuff," he said.
He's become a huge Rays fan, and through the Big Game James Club he has been able to meet the players "and get their autographs, if I'm lucky."
His foster mother said the new initiative is all about letting them have the same experiences as her biological children.
"Sometimes foster kids have a label. All they want is normalcy."
John Barry can be reached at (813) 226-3383 or firstname.lastname@example.org.