Number of foster children rising in SWFL

Published: Updated:
MGN Online

LEE COUNTY, Fla.- There are currently more than 1,900 kids in Southwest Florida, under the care of the Department of Children and Families. More than 650 of those kids need foster care.

Professionals are worried that number is only going to go up, and there aren’t enough families in the system to keep up with the need.

Just last month, WINK News cameras watched 25 children adopted into their forever homes. For 24 of those children, the road to adoption was all too similar. They were taken from homes where parents abused drugs.

The CEO of Children’s Network of SWFL Nadereh Salim says sadly those 24 children are not alone, calling the statistics “alarming.”

In just the past 14 months, Children’s Network has seen a 41 percent increase in children being removed from their families and placed in foster care.

“In all of my years, I’ve not seen an increase this drastic in such a short period of time,” said Salim.

The question is, why?

“Number one is substance abuse,” said Salim.

That’s where Salus Care can help. Salus Care works hand in hand with Children’s Network, providing in-home or outpatient services for those accused of abuse or neglect.

“If my primary goal getting out of bed in the morning, is how am I going to get my next usage of an opiate, than probably my paying attention to my child is not my priority,” said Kevin Lewis, CEO of Salus Care.

So the next question is, why are seeing the spike in cases involving substance abuse?

“These people who have become opiate dependent in their 20s are having children, are parenting, and opiate dependency is a huge driving force for them,” said Lewis.

While Salus Care tries to meet the needs of the adults involved, Children’s Network struggles to meet the needs of their kids.

“Most importantly, is the need for foster parents,” said Salim.

There are currently a total of 297 foster families registered with Children’s Network, with space to house 600 foster children. That number leaves 45 kids in group homes, without a family.

For the past five years, Paul and Wendy Vernon have gotten used to a full house.

“We saw there was such a great need. It’s been a whole mix of fun, laughter, and sometimes very difficult, very tragic,” said Wendy Vernon.

Over that time, they’ve fostered 28 children. Paul Vernon says, “We treat them as our own children.”

So if you’re interested in becoming a foster parent, the Vernons say the time and effort is worth it.

Wendy says, “To see laughter and acceptance, and the first time that child will give you a hug, is amazing. If we have helped a child, helped a family to be successful, to be a family unit again, or that child to have known and received love, then that’s the biggest thing you could ever want.”

Whether you’re a foster parent, work in mental health, or in child welfare, the goal is to find these children a home.

If you are interested in becoming a foster parent, or adopting a child, you can contact the Children’s Network at 1-855-933-KIDS.

To report abuse, call the Florida Abuse Hotline at 800-962-2873.

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