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The case for sheltering siblings together

Published Mar. 29, 2014

They were four sisters who had already lost so much — the school they knew, their dog, their friends, the life they had. They were not about to lose each other.

They had come from a foster home — things were not working out there — to this sprawling shelter called A Kid's Place in the Brandon suburbs east of Tampa. And when it was time for bed in one of the five group homes — think bright murals, sprawling family kitchen, thick quilts — the girls would not be without each other.

So the house parents pushed four beds together, first, with the heads touching and making a sort of star shape, and when that didn't work, side by side.

"The only way the girls can sleep," Vicki McCuistion, who runs this house with husband Bob, told me, "is because they're together."

At this nonprofit, 60-bed shelter for abused, abandoned and neglected children, it is the mantra: Keep brothers and sisters together (unless there is a good reason not to) instead of tearing them apart.

Though calling this place a shelter seems an epic understatement.

Founded by Tampa's celebrated child advocate, the late Dottie Berger MacKinnon, it is warm and bright, filled with books and toys. The average stay is 90 days — not a home, but a bridge — during which kids get therapy and medical and dental care and go to school. When I visited there recently with board member Tracy Sheehan — a circuit judge — she promptly dropped to her knees in the lobby to climb inside the massive trunk of a huge, Disney-esque faux tree built into a corner. Inside (hey, when a judge says follow me) it felt like the best safe and secret place of your childhood.

Kids were everywhere: a chubby baby asleep in his stroller, a teenager trying out a bike, a roomful of preschoolers showing off how they had just learned to count by 10s.

Sheehan says the shelter can take in five brothers and sisters from a single family when there is room, better than the old days when they often had to split them up and scatter them around town.

It is our constant, tragic struggle, how Florida cares for its most vulnerable. Or how it doesn't.

The Legislature has been working on revamping child welfare law on the heels of a blistering Miami Herald report about 477 children who died from abuse and neglect since the end of 2007 — after their families had contact with the Department of Children and Families. Given the DCF's troubled history, real change will be a monumental undertaking.

And tucked into one bill is a small paragraph, one that would require the DCF to make "reasonable efforts" to keep siblings removed from their homes together, as long as it is in their best interests. A DCF spokeswoman in Tallahassee, who said the department works to keep siblings together, supports the language in the bill.

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How much might this matter? Kid's Place executive director Virginia Johnson points out a bond with a brother or sister is probably the longest most of us will ever know. For kids who come here, she says, it's "such a safety net."

After a couple of weeks, two bright sticky notes appeared on the bedroom door where the four sisters were staying. They were clearly intended for grown-ups to read.

"Your are a good cook," one of them said. The other: "Thank u all. From all of us."


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