SPRING HILL — Gloria West-Lawson, a worker in child welfare agencies for six years, gave up her paying jobs and struck out on her own in 2005 with the aim of streamlining placement and care for foster children.
She founded the nonprofit Fostering Hope Florida, which to date has facilitated the opening of foster care homes in Hernando, Pasco and Pinellas counties. These homes have provided 17 children with loving and safe environments.
For her work, the 46-year-old mother of three adult children has been named one of 100 semifinalists in the Energizer Keep Going Hall of Fame.
West-Lawson was frustrated by the bureaucracy of government-run child aid programs.
"I saw kids being bounced place to place, and my heart went out to them," she said. "Kids that were supposed to be in foster care went into shelters (because of the lack of foster homes). They would come back in six months, and I saw they had even more issues. We wouldn't do to a plant what we do to these children."
With the advent several years ago of community-based care, which privatized what had been government-operated child services, she decided to create her own avenue to help the children.
"And I want the public to know the plight of these children," West-Lawson said.
She noted that in 2005, Hernando County had the highest rate of removal of children from their biological families in the entire state, a statistic confirmed by the state Department of Children and Families. That rate has fallen in the years since.
Furthermore, Kids Central Inc., the provider hired by the state to oversee foster care and adoption in Hernando, Citrus, Sumter, Marion and Lake counties, has failed to license new foster homes in Hernando County, she said. Home inspections for fire prevention and safety have been done, but 20-page reports of homes studied and family dynamics have not been written, holding up licensing.
Kids Central spokeswoman Joanna Skyler said Hernando County has 33 licensed foster homes, which care for 116 children, ages infant to 18 years.
But that's insufficient, West-Lawson said, because so many children are shunted to other counties, farther away from contact with their natural families.
Fostering Hope Florida bills itself as a network of full-service foster homes, providing living arrangements, infant and toddler car seats and cribs, child care when needed, and such assistance as transportation, at-home tutoring, counseling and mentoring — all of the services also offered to the Foster Parents Association of Hernando, a homegrown group of parents.
Fostering Hope Florida owns, with a mortgage, a home in Pasco that accommodates five youths, plus one in Spring Hill occupied by West-Lawson and her husband, Jerry Lawson, and a 17-year-old foster child. It's a five-bedroom home the couple would like to fill with more children, but licensing for more than one child hasn't been granted.
"There's nothing to prevent our licensing but inefficiency," West-Lawson said.
She is upbeat on another point. Of the foster child who experienced 24 home placements in four years before she came to the Lawsons last October, West-Lawson said: "She is so resilient. She is just amazing. It's not a struggle to get to school. It's amazing what a little love and consistency can do."
The girl was previously reported by other foster agencies to have been "a problem," West-Lawson said.
The Foster Parents Association's Linda Hoins lauds West-Lawson's efforts, adding: "We're in desperate need of homes. I need community support. We're sending money (worldwide), and we have a need here."
Fostering Hope Florida is funded by community gifts; fundraisers such as free children's story readings at Anderson Snow Park, where donations are accepted; vintage fashion shows at the Show Palace Dinner Theater; drawings and raffles, plus $50 a month from foster families who are paid $350 to $450 a month by the state for a youth's care.
West-Lawson said she relies on her husband's job as a plumber for her livelihood.
The foundation works out of a Clearwater office provided gratis by Ageless Placement. West-Lawson can be contacted there at (727) 688-5328.
Ten finalists for the Energizer Hall of Fame will be selected by public voting beginning Thursday online at energizer.com/halloffame. The winner will receive a $10,000 cash prize plus a $5,000 donation to her or his selected charity.
Beth Gray can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.