When Hurricanes Ian and Nicole swept through Central Florida last year, most of us here in Central Florida immediately jumped into planning mode — gathering supplies, filling the tank with gas and keeping one eye on the weather channel.
But for caregivers and case managers in Florida’s child welfare system, there was an even more pressing concern: making sure the 2,300 children in foster care on any given day had a safe place to weather the storms.
As soon as the early forecasts arrived, Embrace Families and our fellow state-designated child welfare nonprofits began working feverishly to communicate with families across our network. For children who already have a stable foster placement, we wanted to make sure they had a safe space, plenty of supplies and an evacuation plan.
But we also faced a much greater challenge: across Central Florida, there were more than three dozen foster children who simply had nowhere to go. There simply weren’t enough beds for every child in foster care who needed one.
It’s often in the most uncertain situations that we see the greatest outpouring of generosity. With the storm inbound, foster parents and community partners throughout the system rallied to find and volunteer open beds and safe spaces. They made room for “one more.” They rose to the challenge of caring for children with special medical needs. They opened their homes and hearts to kids who had nowhere else to turn.
A natural disaster can be frightening for anyone, at any age, but especially for foster kids. Many enter care because of traumatic situations beyond their control, and they’re struggling to adjust to a new environment and unfamiliar caregivers. Storms bring even more unpredictability, which can cause anxiety that children and adolescents aren’t ready to process.
For those emotionally vulnerable youth, foster homes represent so much more than a bed to sleep in and a roof overhead. They offer a structured family environment with adults who can support the kids in their care — working with case managers to help them keep in touch with loved ones, talk over their worries with a therapist and stay in the loop about what to expect next.
In some ways, case managers and foster parents are the “first responders” of the care system. When a family is in crisis, or a child needs a place to spend the night, they are the ones who answer the call — even in the middle of the night, over the weekend or when a hurricane is on the way. They set aside their own plans and priorities to ensure our most vulnerable children are safe.
And while storms highlight the critical role foster homes play in child welfare, the truth is that this issue is ongoing. Year round, we need foster parents who are willing to open their homes to children in need — from newborn babies to high school seniors — and provide support and stability on their path to healing. Together, we can give kids a safe home in all of life’s storms.
To learn more about how you can get involved with Embrace Families and support Central Florida’s foster children, visit www.embracefamilies.org.
Embrace Families is the lead nonprofit agency overseeing child welfare in Orange County, Osceola County and Seminole County.