It is often said that families form the foundations of communities. But a sad truth of our times is that sometimes circumstances make it impossible for children to live with their birth parents. Drug abuse, incarceration, illness, and other factors have caused some local youths to enter foster care. “Foster care…is one area that people don’t like to talk about,” says Family Integrity Program (FIP) manager Michael Forster. Michael has worked in child welfare since 2004. His background, however, is in culinary arts, having worked as a chef in Pinellas County. In food service, he contributed to a pleasant experience for his clientele – but he wanted to do more. In an effort to be of service in an even more fulfilling way, Michael returned to school and earned his psychology degree. He has worked in St. Johns County for two years.
St. Augustine is made up of families who are willing to step up to the plate by adopting children in need of thriving safe havens. Last year, 58 St. Johns County children were finalized for placement in “forever homes.” The county currently has a 50% reunification rate. Between St. Augustine Youth Services, Betty Griffin Center, and EPIC Behavioral Healthcare, our city takes seriously its duty to implement stability and proper care for displaced children who will shape the future of our community. St. Johns County is unique in that it accepts responsibility to run its own foster program rather than privatizing the work. Of course, this can pose fundraising challenges as local municipalities cannot fund programs run by government agencies. However, FIP often receives calls with offers of practical assistance. Michael remembers when a local reached out to say she was donating duffel bags and toiletries. Generally, children entering care have only trash bags to carry belongings. “They’re already going through enough,” observes Michael. It’s not lost on him that displaced children need to be dignified with presentable basic necessities. This seemingly small touch can help keep self-worth intact during tumultuous moments. Placing children in proper care settings is no easy task. A myriad of factors warrant consideration – including temperament, what the foster parent can provide, and the child’s upbringing.
When Michael isn’t working with FIP, he enjoys live music and is an avid Sam Pacetti fan. He appreciates St. Augustine’s small town feel. “On any night,” says Michael, “you can catch a great show.” These refreshing outlets offered by the community prevent Michael and his team from taking often wearisome work home, and these kind of diversions are a real benefit to those they serve.
In terms of room for improvement, Michael says “the biggest thing we need is more foster parents.” Currently, there are 75 children in the system, while 50 homes are available. Many of these children come from the 32084 zip code, but generally, they are placed in northern St. Johns County. “We need homes here in the 32084. We need a call to action for these children,” says Michael. There are children who qualify for adoption, but don’t have a home. “I don’t think most people know how much this is happening…in St. Johns County,” Michael says. But those who choose to foster and adopt make a real difference in these children’s lives, says Michael. “Our foster parents are amazing…they put me in awe.”