Fostering the Well-Being of Children

Fostering the Well-Being of Children

Heartland for Children

BY ANITA TODD-WHITAKER

At first, Cebien Alty was reluctant to become a foster parent. Although it was a lifelong dream of his wife, Joy-Lynn, he was tentative.

“I was hesitant to become a foster parent,” Cebien said. “But, after several years of my wife talking to me about it, I finally began to think that just maybe we could do some good.”

Four years later, after becoming foster parents, his only regret is that they didn’t do it sooner. Heartland for Children relies on the Alty family and about 150 other foster families to open their homes and hearts in order to welcome abused and/or neglected children.

According to the website, Heartland for Children is the local not-for-profit agency responsible for redesigning the foster care system in Polk, Hardee and Highlands counties. Heartland for Children promotes the prevention of child abuse and oversees the provision of services for children who have been abused and/or neglected. These services include in-home family strengthening, adoption, case management, foster care and independent living. As the local Child Welfare Lead Agency, Heartland for Children is concerned with the safety and well-being of all children in our community.

“It is the last resort to remove a child from their home and take the child away from the family but the child’s safety comes first,” said Kimberly Daugherty, Chief Community Relations Officer. “We provide the best care possible for the children while the parents are getting the help they need to be the best parent they can.”

Heartland for Children came about in 2004 after the state legislature realized that “child welfare is bigger than government,” said Teri Saunders, Chief Executive Officer, Heartland for Children during a video on the organization’s website. “They realized that child welfare services and foster care services for the state of Florida really wasn’t working that well. So, they created a really innovative model for local notfor-profits to take over that network.”

At any time, in those three counties, there are approximately 2,000 children being cared for in foster homes. And, although it goes without saying that those children are helped by the foster families, Cebien said it goes much deeper than that.

“Yes, we make a difference for them but they have changed our lives,” Cebien said. “Even the little bit that we do to help them be resilient keeps us going. The kids are amazingly resilient.”

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In order to be a foster home, individuals must attend a mandatory eight-session orientation class for three hours each class. Then, the foster family must have two home visits for the organization to license the house. These visits ensure that the environment is safe, pets are vaccinated, and so on.

“Heartland for Children typically looks at the needs of the kids and matches them with the desires of the foster families,” Daugherty said.

Foster parents may be a married couple, single individuals, legally divorced or widowed and at least 21 years old. They must be financially stable and pass a background check. Relatives may also step forward to care for the children.

Unfortunately, oftentimes, the parents’ rights are terminated when they do not fulfill court-ordered requirements and children are put up for adoption. Many foster parents become adoptive parents after they come to love and care for the children in their care.

“We have adopted three children and words cannot express how spiritually connected we feel to them,” Cebien said. “It is like we gave birth to them … and everywhere we go, people say they look like us.” The Altys are also one of two couples who mentor the other foster parents during the first year of being in the program.

More people like the Altys are essential and they are coming forward but more are needed.

Just this fiscal year, from July 1 through Dec. 1, fifty-one children have been adopted through Heartland for Children. But, the needs continue. Currently, there 105 children available for adoption; however, 76 are working with families toward adoption.

“Don’t even hesitate. Just do it. It doesn’t matter if you help one child one night or 10 children for months or years; you can make a difference,” Cebien said.

Foster and adoptive parents are desperately needed to be a part of Heartland for Children. If you are interested, please do not put off calling 863.519.8900 ext. 289 or visit HeartlandForChildren.org, AdoptFlorida.org or FosteringFlorida.com.

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