A few new homes will soon rise in Ellenton, dedicated to helping meet the pressing need for foster care across Manatee and Sarasota counties.
The homes are designed to accommodate six children and are the result of a partnership between Florida Baptist Children’s Homes and the Guardian Angels of Southwest Florida. They likely could provide a haven for brothers and sisters who otherwise might face separation, according to Brena Slater, community development administrator with the Department of Children and Families.
“I’m sure when they open, we’ll have business for them,” she said. “A lot of the removals we are doing are larger sibling groups. When we do remove sibling groups, the wonderful thing about Guardian Angels and Florida Baptist and the building of these homes is we can place children together.”
Slater, the administrator for District 12 — it serves Manatee, Sarasota and DeSoto counties — mentioned two Manatee cases in the past year involving two sibling groups of six that had to be separated as they entered the foster system. The Ellenton homes, with two planned now and five more proposed once financing is in place, would allow for them to remain together and be cared for by a couple who live there full-time, she said.
“The Department of Families does not like shift work,” she said.
The department does not want children to be parented by one set of people during the day and another at night.
The sense of stability is one sought-after aspect of care, according to Bobbie Price, president of the Guardian Angels. The group, which formed six years ago to address the foster care dilemma, has 13 homes serving 23 children in the area.
After buying 7.3 acres in Ellenton for $222,000, its leaders used a kick-off campaign in March to raise $1.4 million to finance the two homes’ construction. Although its Building Hope and Homes for Children initiative was successful, the organization chose to rely on Florida Baptist Children’s Homes, with whom Guardian Angels has a long-standing partnership.
“These are faith-based homes,” Price said. “We feel God has really directed this whole thing. We feel that this is His doing and we’re proud to be a part of it.”
The Guardian Angels recognize their efforts within the larger goal of increasing from 130-plus to 200 foster homes in the district. The child welfare system as run through the Sarasota YMCA and its Safe Children Coalition currently serves nearly 1,300 children with about 300 in group care facilities or foster homes.
As part of its collaboration with Florida Baptist, Guardian Angels pays for half of the salary of one of the two social workers who will help oversee the homes. As a family support counselor, Melissa Weber is one of those whose role is to recruit, train, license and provide support to Christian foster families.
“We are itching and very excited to get them up and going,” Weber said. “One of the things we run into are there just aren’t enough homes or places for children to go.”
The possibility of getting a placement call and having four or five options available, that “we can say we have a place,” excites Weber.
Weber’s supervisor, Jennie Ard, concurred that the homes will meet a variety of important needs once they are constructed. Ground has been broken on the homes. Construction is anticipated to begin in June after foundations are laid and water and electric are in place.
As the director of community ministries in central Florida for Florida Baptist Children’s Homes, Ard is particularly focused on the importance of a full-time couple, one of whom will not work outside the home, in creating the best environment for children.
“It allows children to develop relationships as opposed to different people coming in and out,” she said. “It’s really a family-like setting.”
Andrea Mertyris, the community relations specialist with the Safe Children Coalition, said she has been impressed with the joint efforts of the organizations.
“The Safe Children Coalition has been successful with licensing traditional foster care homes in DeSoto, Manatee and Sarasota counties through the years,” she said. “The partnership with the Guardian Angels and Florida Baptist Children’s Home is progress in enhancing the placement opportunities for children served in our communities.”