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New bill aims to create alternative to foster care for struggling families but lack of oversight worries some

Odessa pastor Chris Basham, right, his wife, Karen, and their two kids have been a host family for the Safe Families program.
Published Apr. 8, 2017

TAMPA — One parent losing a job, being admitted to a hospital or struggling with addiction can be difficult for any family. For a single parent, however, it can also mean losing children to the foster care system.

Supporters of a proposed law hope to change that.

The Temporary Care of a Child Act aims to create a less intrusive alternative to foster care. It would allow nonprofit agencies like church groups to match struggling parents with "respite" or host families who would care for children until parents are back on their feet.

Participation would be voluntary, but supporters say it would be a safety net for parents who shy away from seeking help because they fear the state will take away their children. It could also reduce the pressure on Florida's overburdened child welfare system.

The program would be run on a volunteer basis with neither agencies nor host families receiving any payment for placing and caring for children.

The concept is not new. Bethany Christian Services of Florida, a church group that provides family services including adoption, already runs a similar program in Tampa, Orlando and Lakeland. A handful of other states, including Illinois and Indiana, already have passed laws recognizing the role of host families.

A Florida law would put the programs on a firmer legal footing and would likely lead to their spread across the state, said state Rep. Frank White, R-Pensacola, who filed the bill.

Florida particularly needs host families, White said, because it attracts people who moved here for work or for sunshine, leaving behind relatives who might otherwise help in times of trouble.

"We don't have the same family and community ties we used to have," he said. "This program strengthens those community bonds. This is more than please put a roof over my kid's head."

Only families who pass a background check would be eligible to host children and stays would be capped at 90 days. Children previously removed from parents because of abuse or neglect or whose parents are in the middle of a custody battle would not be eligible.

Still, there are concerns about how little oversight is proposed for the program.

Family law attorneys want safeguards so parents who don't have custody of their children can step in instead of host families. They also question why the bill does not require licensing of the nonprofit groups that match families.

Amy Hickman, an attorney with the family law section of the Florida Bar, said there needs to be standards for oversight of the agencies and frequency of home visits when children are living with host families.

"There is no licensing; there is no requirement they have experienced and professional staff that can assist in training in volunteer homes or for monitoring children in volunteer homes," Hickman said.

White's response: Divorce agreements already stipulate the rights of parents who do not have primary custody. And licensing the nonprofit agencies through the Florida Department of Children and Families would do little to help the children in need, he said.

"They aren't getting any government money for administering (this)," he said. "DCF is already overburdened with overwhelming challenges today."

That doesn't satisfy the family law section of the Bar, which is lobbying for the law to include standards for monitoring children.

"If we're going to write it into law, we needs some standards in there to protect children," Hickman said.

The bill is backed by the Foundation for Government Accountability, a think tank that supported Gov. Rick Scott's plan to drug test welfare recipients. The community can mobilize to care for families in crisis before the problem reaches the level of child neglect, its website states.

Most of the parents who turn to host families for help are single parents, said Kevin Trotter, an assistant executive director at Bethany Christian Services of Florida.

The nonprofit group, which is licensed as an adoption agency in Florida, piloted a host family program in Orlando in 2009. Known as Safe Families for Children, it now has 124 approved volunteer host families, including 50 in the Tampa Bay area.

In all, some 656 children have been placed since the program began, Trotter said.

Having a child taken into foster care is one of the biggest fears that struggling parents face, he said. Only about 43 percent of children under the care of the state are either returned to their parents or adopted within 12 months.

"They wait so long to ask for help, and that's when children, especially little ones, are at risk of abuse and neglect," Trotter said.

Parents are encouraged to call and visit their children as often as they wish and to forge friendships with the host families.

Bethany Christian staffers visit host families to make sure their homes are suitable for children and are equipped with fire extinguishers and smoke detectors. Child safety, appropriate discipline techniques and dealing with child trauma are among the topics included in a training program for parents.

Odessa pastor Chris Basham welcomed two children into the home that he shares with his wife, Karen, and their two children last summer through the Safe Families program.

Vanessa, a fifth-grader, and Terrence, a kindergartener, stayed in the family's four-bedroom home for about four weeks after their mother, who has three other kids, lost her job, and then her home.

There were challenges at first, Basham said. The girl especially missed her mother. It helped that she could telephone her every evening.

When her birthday came along, the Bashams arranged for all her family to attend her party. She was told the presents she received were from her mother.

"Our goal was not to embarrass Mom and, 'We've come to save the day,' " Basham said. "It was to point her back to her mom."

With help from Safe Families, the mother found somewhere to live. She has since found work and now has all her children back at home, Trotter said.

More than 30 percent of members of the Church at Odessa that Basham leads have either adopted, fostered or served as host families, an act of Christian love and caring, he said.

"They're trying to prevent these kids from being in the foster system," he said. "They're trying to give mom and dad a chance to get back on their feet, get the problem solved and get that child back."

Contact Christopher O'Donnell at codonnell@tampabay.com or (813) 226-3446. Follow @codonnell_Times.

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