Heartland for Children is in need of 25 additional foster homes in the Lakeland area to serve teens, siblings and children, including those with autism and developmental delays. Overall, the organization is hoping to add 50 new foster homes in its entire coverage area of Polk, Hardee and Highlands counties, according to Kim Daugherty, chief operations officer for Heartland for Children.

“The last few years recruitment of new foster homes has been a challenge due to many factors such as the COVID impact on families, the economy, workforce crisis, etc. But the need for foster homes for children in our local area has increased, putting additional strains on the child welfare system,” said Kim Daugherty. “Children that have experienced trauma heal by living in stable, loving, home environments with caregivers that focus on connection and building supportive relationships with these children.”

Couples and single people can become foster parents. Heartland for Children staff initially attempts to place children with relatives and people who have known the children, such as neighbors or friends of the family. If these attempts are unsuccessful, then the children are placed in a licensed foster home, shelter home or group home. The agency prefers to place children in homes that are close to the schools the children are already attending. The agency works with caregivers to determine the age and gender of the children being placed in their home.

“Most children and teenagers prefer to be placed in a family home setting such as foster homes that are in local neighborhoods,” Daugherty said.

Foster caregivers receive a check once a month that covers room and board for the child or children they have in their homes. The rate is based on the age range of the child, according to Daugherty. Caregivers can also work while fostering children. They can receive childcare benefits and additional funding to cover childcare costs, according to Daugherty.

“Heartland for Children offers virtual classes to train and prepare foster parents. Foster parents need to be able to provide a safe and stable home environment and have the ability to connect with children. Also, there are ongoing training opportunities once you become a foster parent,” Daugherty said, adding that the initial training is 21 hours. There are also in-person training options.

A foster home provides stability and a positive role model to the children, Daugherty added.

“If children or teenagers do not get the support and services they need, they are more likely to develop behavioral and emotional problems, experience Baker Acts, lack life skills, lack education, become teen parents, be arrested and become involved with the Department of Juvenile Justice, and [then they] may not be prepared to enter the workforce,” Daugherty said.

Daugherty said this would impact the entire community by straining available resources and services and causing local and state budgets to allocate more funds to services and resources for children.

Foster children typically stay with caregivers on a temporary basis, ranging from a few days to a year or more. The length of stay depends on how long it takes for the biological parents to meet goals set in their case plan.

“The court approved plan outlines the steps for parents to regain the custody of their children. This may include tasks related to substance abuse and/or mental health treatment, parenting classes…improving caregiver protective capacities and/or seek stable housing if parent(s) are homeless or need a safe and stable home for the children to reside. All efforts are made to reunify children with their biological families when it is safe to do so,” Daugherty said.

Additional support is available for foster parents who care for children with special needs and/or behavioral disorders.

“Caregivers will receive training around the impact of trauma on children, how to manage behaviors and the critical role they will play in helping children heal from the trauma and how to respond to the behaviors,” said Daugherty. “They will also learn about the service and supports that are available to help them manage and respond to behaviors.”

According to Daugherty, rapid population growth in the Lakeland area has led to the need for more foster homes.

“Currently, Heartland for Children is serving over 2,025 local children from Polk, Highlands and Hardee counties. The population growth has drastically increased in Lakeland and Polk County and more families are moving here with children,” Daugherty explained.

In order to adopt foster children, Daugherty said caregivers must wait until there are no interested parents or relatives. The agency has 30 children available for adoption that have not been matched to a family.

Those interested in foster care or adoption should visit www.heartlandforchildren.org or call 863-519-8900 ext. 289.

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Stephanie Claytor has been a broadcast and digital journalist in Lakeland since 2016, covering Polk County for Bay News 9 and currently free-lancing for LkldNow. She is an author of travel and children's books.

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